In a significant opinion underlining punitive damages as not only an accepted remedy in general maritime law, but now a remedy with a uniform rule, the US Supreme Court held that an injured seaman may recover punitive damages in a claim for wilful failure to pay maintenance and cure.(1)
The plaintiff, an injured seaman, brought action against the defendant under the Jones Act and general maritime law, alleging negligence, unseaworthiness, arbitrary and wilful failure to pay maintenance and cure, and wrongful termination.(2) The plaintiff also filed similar claims as counterclaims to the defendant's declaratory judgment action, seeking punitive damages on his maintenance and cure claim. The plaintiff's action and the defendant's declaratory action were consolidated.
The defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff's demand for punitive damages, arguing that the plaintiff could recover only those damages available under the Jones Act.(3) The defendant relied on Miles v Apex Marine Corp,(4) where the Supreme Court limited recovery in maritime cases involving death or personal injury to those remedies available under the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act.(5)
The Supreme Court disagreed with the defendant's argument and held that punitive damages have "long been an accepted remedy" in general maritime actions, including some maintenance and cure actions: "Nothing in Miles or the Jones Act eliminates that availability." The court reasoned that although Miles limited the availability of remedies for a wrongful-death action under general maritime law to those remedies available under the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act, the court did not address the availability of punitive damages for maintenance and cure actions.
Both a general maritime cause of action (maintenance and cure) and its remedy (punitive damages) were well established before the passage of the Jones Act.(6) The court held that the creation of the Jones Act did not eliminate pre-existing common law remedies such as maintenance and cure, reasoning that the act confers upon the injured seaman the right to "elect" to bring a Jones Act claim, providing a choice rather than an exclusive remedy. Such election allows a seaman to bring a maintenance and cure claim and its remedy under general maritime law without abridging or violating the Jones Act. If the Jones Act had been intended as the only remedy available, it would not have included a right-to-elect provision.(7)
The court also noted that unlike wrongful death actions, a maintenance and cure claim is not a matter to which "Congress has spoken directly".(8) The only statutory restrictions on maintenance and cure are expressly provided in the statutory amendments to the Jones Act. The amendments limit maintenance and cure availability for two distinct classes of people: foreign workers on offshore oil and mineral production facilities, and sailing school students and instructors. The court noted that these provisions indicate that "Congress knows how to" restrict the traditional remedy of maintenance and cure "when it wants to". Unless a claimant belongs to one of these distinct classes that are specifically restricted, nothing in the statutory scheme restricts the availability of punitive damages for maintenance and cure.(9)
Perhaps the most significant development from the case is the creation of a uniform rule for applying punitive damages. A split among the circuits regarding punitive damages in cases of wilful non-payment of maintenance and cure under general maritime law did exist.(10) Now, with its new opinion, the Supreme Court has created uniform law holding that punitive damages for the wilful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation should remain available as a matter of general maritime law. Thus, a seaman may recover punitive damages in a claim for wilful failure to pay maintenance and cure.
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(5) In Miles the court "restore[d] a uniform rule applicable to all actions for the wrongful death of a seaman, whether under [the Death on the High Seas Act], the Jones Act, or general maritime law".
(6) The dissent believes that the cases supporting punitive damages in a claim for maintenance and cure before the passage of the Jones Act are insufficient to justify a departure from the Miles uniformity principle.
(10) The Court of Appeal for the Fifth Circuit reversed an award of punitive damages holding that punitive damages were no longer available in cases of wllful nonpayment of maintenance and cure under general maritime law. Guevara v Maritime Overseas Corp, 59 F 3d 1496 (5th Cir 1995). Conversely, the Court of Appeal for the Eleventh Circuit held that punitive damages were available in an action for maintenance and cure. Hines v JA La Porte, Inc, 820 F 2d 1187 (11th Cir 1987).