United States: Supreme Court Precludes Punitive Damages For Unseaworthiness Claims


In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court has precluded the recovery of punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims. In Dutra Group v Batterton,1 issued on 24 June 2019, the court conclusively resolved a long-running split between federal appellate courts and settled a source of uncertainty in the US maritime industry.

This decision will reduce overall litigation costs for maritime personal injury cases and resolve a number of issues relating to insurance coverage for punitive damages (for further details on the case background and arguments see "Supreme Court to decide availability of punitive damages for seafarer's unseaworthiness claim").


Batterton involved a Jones Act seafarer who was injured while working aboard a vessel owned and operated by the Dutra Group (the petitioner). He asserted claims against his employer for Jones Act negligence, unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure, seeking punitive damages on his unseaworthiness claim. The Dutra Group moved to strike Batterton's punitive damages claim, arguing that punitive damages are unavailable for unseaworthiness claims. The trial court denied the Dutra Group's motion but certified an interlocutory appeal on the issue.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, relying on circuit precedent to hold that punitive damages are available for unseaworthiness claims. The Dutra Group sought resolution of the issue from the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts' holdings, declaring that punitive damages are unavailable for unseaworthiness claims.

Supreme Court ruling

The court analysed its prior rulings in Miles v Apex Marine Corp2 and Atlantic Sounding v Townsend3 to make its determination. While Miles did not directly concern punitive damages, it is relevant to the analysis of punitive damages in general maritime law because of its holding that nonpecuniary damages are unavailable in an action for the wrongful death of a Jones Act seafarer. The court in Miles proclaimed that, when determining federal policy with respect to seafarer's personal injury claims, "an admiralty court should look primarily to... legislative enactments for policy guidance" and "keep strictly within the limits imposed by Congress".4

Townsend, decided almost 20 years later, seemed to undercut Miles, holding that punitive damages are available under general maritime law for a seafarer's maintenance and cure claim. However, the court in Townsend explicitly stated that "[t]he reasoning of Miles remains sound", distinguishing maintenance and cure claims from the maritime wrongful death action that was at issue in Miles.5

Since Townsend, the courts have struggled to interpret and harmonise Miles and Townsend, leading to the circuit split on the issue of punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims. The court has now resolved circuit split, ultimately concluding that Miles requires the court to look to legislative enactments for guidance and seek to promote a uniform rule applicable to all actions for the same injury.

In applying these guideposts to the case, the court concluded that punitive damages have not historically been available for unseaworthiness claims. This distinguished Batterton from Townsend, where the court found that punitive damages were historically available for claims of failure to pay maintenance and cure.

The court next found that permitting punitive damages for an unseaworthiness claim would be inconsistent with clearly expressed legislative policies set out by Congress in the Jones Act, which limits a seafarer's recovery for personal injuries to pecuniary losses. The federal courts of appeals have unanimously held that punitive damages are unavailable under the Jones Act and its base legislation, the Federal Employers' Liability Act.

After much discussion of the history of unseaworthiness claims, the court reasoned that, as such claims have developed over time, they have significant overlap with Jones Act claims, such that Jones Act and unseaworthiness claims could be described as "alternative 'grounds' of recovery for a single cause of action".6 The court was:

wary  to  depart  from  the  practice  under  the  Jones  Act  because  a  claim  of  unseaworthiness  – more  than  a  claim  for  maintenance  and  cure    serves  as  a  duplicate  and  substitute  for  a Jones Act claim.7

As such, the court determined that permitting punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims when they are prohibited for Jones Act negligence claims would run contrary to the uniformity principles under which its maritime decisions are guided. Thus, the court concluded that "a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness".8


Following the Supreme Court's decision, the law is now clear on the availability of punitive damages for the three claims commonly brought by seafarers: Jones Act negligence, unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure. Punitive damages are available only for the wilful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure. A seafarer cannot recover punitive damages for Jones Act negligence or unseaworthiness claims. With this question resolved, vessel owners and maritime employers are better positioned to assess their exposure for personal injuries and can now arrange the necessary insurance coverages to manage the risks.


1 18-266 US (24 June 2019).

2 498 US 19 (1990).

3 557 US 404 (2009).

4 Miles, 498 US at 27.

5 Townsend, 557 US at 420.

6 Batterton, slip op at 8 (quoting 2 R Force & M. Norris, The Law of Seamen § 30:90 (5th ed 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

7 Id at 15.

8 Id at 18.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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