Ninth Circuit Splits With Fifth Circuit in Deciding that Punitive Damages are Available in Unseaworthiness Cases

In January 2018, the Ninth Circuit in Batterton v. Dutra Group affirmed the lower court’s decision ruling that punitive damages are awardable to seamen in unseaworthiness actions. The Court relied on its 1987 decision in Evich v. Morris, where it “squarely held that ‘[p]unitive damages are available under general maritime law for claims of unseaworthiness’” and found that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp, did not overrule Evich. Rather, the Ninth Circuit opined that Miles held that loss of society damages are unavailable in a general maritime action for a seaman’s wrongful death and lost future earnings are unavailable in a general maritime survival action. It found that “Miles did not address punitive damages.”

The Ninth Circuit went on to say that a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend implicitly found that Miles does not limit the availability of punitive damages in unseaworthiness claims given that Townsend allowed punitive damages for maintenance and cure, and there is “no persuasive reason to distinguish maintenance and cure actions from unseaworthiness actions with respect to awardable damages.”

Finally, the Batterton Court noted that the statutory limitations on survivors’ damages to “pecuniary loss,” such as those found in the Death on the High Seas Act or the Jones Act, had “no application to general maritime claims by living seamen for injuries to themselves.”

The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that it has split with the relatively recent McBride v. Estis Well Service (2014) decision from the Fifth Circuit, which held that “‘punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses’ and therefore may not be recovered under the Jones Act or under the general maritime law” including in unseaworthiness actions. The Batterton Court highlighted that McBride was a sharply divided decision and found the dissenting opinions to be more persuasive. For example, the Ninth Circuit found that the Fifth Circuit interpreted Miles broadly and Townsend narrowly, but that interpretation ignores Miles’ statement that the “Jones Act ‘does not disturb seamen’s general maritime claims for injuries resulting from unseaworthiness.’”

Given the split between two major admiralty circuits, the maritime community is anxiously waiting to see whether the Supreme Court takes up the issue of punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions. Should the Batterton decision remain in place in the Ninth Circuit, plaintiff’s options for damages will greatly expand which will raise plaintiff’s demands. This may force settlement as well, as plaintiffs will have more leverage against exposed insureds given that punitive damage are generally not covered. Maritime lawyers will need to change how they assess their cases for trial, as juries will now often be instructed on punitive damages whenever plaintiffs pursue a claim under general maritime law.

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  • Matthew Johnston
    San Francisco, CA
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