Supreme Court rejects award of punitive damages in unseaworthy action

The Dutra Group v Batterton [24.06.19]

The US Supreme Court has ruled that punitive damages are not recoverable in a seafarer personal injury action alleging unseaworthiness. The court acknowledged punitive damages – intended to punish the wrongdoer rather than compensate the injured party for losses sustained – are recoverable in limited circumstances in a claim for failure to provide maintenance and cure, but concluded that there is no basis for an award of punitive damages for an unseaworthiness claim in the general maritime law.  


The decision involved an injury to a seafarer’s hand while working on a barge, resulting in a permanent disability. The seafarer brought a lawsuit against the vessel owner alleging:

  • A claim under the US Jones Act (Merchant Marine Act 1920)
  • A claim for failure to provide maintenance and cure
  • A claim under the general maritime law that the vessel was unseaworthy.

The seafarer sought the award of punitive damages on the unseaworthiness claim. The ship owner moved to dismiss the punitive damages claim, alleging that punitive damages are not recoverable under the general maritime law. 

The district court denied the motion, holding that punitive damages are recoverable, based upon Ninth Circuit precedent. An interlocutory appeal was taken to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the district court’s decision. The ship owner sought certiorari based on the conflicting precedents, following which the Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision and remanded the case.

Legal reasoning

The majority opinion traced the history of the unseaworthiness doctrine to the jurisprudence of the federal courts in the early nineteenth century that attempted to provide some degree of protection for seafarers who were at a distinct disadvantage when compared to the employer ship owners. The doctrine was not generally used as a basis for a personal injury cause of action until the early twentieth century.

The US Congress took up the cause of American seafarers when it passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act. The Jones Act provided a mechanism by which an injured seafarer could recover compensatory (but not punitive) damages for personal injuries. To avoid having to establish a completely new regulatory framework, Congress tied the Jones Act to the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), which is a compensation scheme established for railroad employees.

The Supreme Court transformed the doctrine of unseaworthiness into a potent weapon by which an injured seafarer could recover personal injury damages by holding that the ship owner’s obligation to provide a seaworthy vessel was absolute and non-delegable - and not satisfied by a simple showing of due diligence. As a result, seafarers could allege a breach of the seaworthiness duty with a minimal showing of negligence on the part of the ship owner. The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel was determined to be separate and distinct from the duty to exercise reasonable care under the Jones Act. The result is that an injured seafarer has two avenues by which to recover damages for the same injury, the Jones Act or an unseaworthiness claim.


While the Supreme Court had previously considered the availability of punitive damages in the context of seafarer personal injury, it had not previously addressed the issue of punitive damages in connection with an unseaworthiness claim under the general maritime law.

In concluding that punitive damages were not recoverable as part of an unseaworthiness claim, the court acknowledged that it is bound by the general maritime common law, which it described as “an ‘amalgam’ of the traditional common-law rules, modifications of those rules, and newly created rules.”  

The court explained that it would look for guidance to legislative enactments and that where Congress has extensively regulated an area, the courts should cautiously modify that legislative scheme through judicial pronouncements. Ultimately, the goal is to maintain uniformity in the court’s exercise of admiralty jurisdiction.

The court reasoned that allowing punitive damages under a general maritime law claim of unseaworthiness would create a “novel remedy” which is unsupported by judicial precedent and contrary to the perceived intent of Congress. A claim for unseaworthiness and a claim under the Jones Act seek compensation for the same personal injury. Because Congress legislatively determined that the Jones Act seafarer and the FELA rail worker should be treated the same, there can be no basis for allowing the seafarer to recover punitive damages by asserting an unseaworthiness claim while precluding the same award to rail workers.

Read more items in Marine Brief - September 2019