Ninth Circuit Determines Punitive Damages are Available to an Injured Seaman for General Maritime Law Unseaworthiness Claims.

On January 23, 2018, a panel of the Ninth Circuit held that an injured seaman asserting a general maritime law unseaworthiness claim against a vessel owner is entitled to seek an award of punitive damages. In Batterton v. Dutra Group, __F.3d __ (9th Cir. 2018), the Ninth Circuit considered the district court’s certification of the single question of the availability of punitive damages for an injured Jones Act seaman’s general maritime law claim of unseaworthiness. The Panel distinguished the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), concluding that an injured seaman is entitled to seek punitive damages against the vessel owner for a general maritime law unseaworthiness claim.

The 28 U.S.C. §1292(b) Certification for Interlocutory Appeal Concerning Punitive Damages

Plaintiff Batterton was a deckhand assigned to a vessel owned and operated by Dutra Group (“Dutra”). During the course of his employment and while the vessel was located in navigable waters, Batterton was struck by a vessel hatch cover, and suffered a disabling crushing injury to his left hand. At the time of Plaintiff’s injury, crewmembers were injecting pressurized air into a vessel compartment located directly below the hatch cover that was not equipped with a pressure relief mechanism. Ultimately, the increasing pressure below deck blew the hatch cover open, striking Plaintiff. Batterton contended that he suffered a permanent disability as a result of Dutra’s failure to supply a seaworthy vessel properly equipped with a pressure relief valve.

Batterton filed suit against Dutra in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, seeking relief under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. §30104, and asserting a claim for unseaworthiness arising under the federal general maritime law. Batterton’s complaint asserted a claim for punitive damages against Dutra for the failure to supply a seaworthy vessel under the federal general maritime law. The District Court denied Dutra’s motion to strike Batterton’s punitive damages claim for the unseaworthiness of the Dutra vessel. The U.S. District Court certified the appeal limited to the sole question of the availability of punitive damages for an unseaworthiness claim.

The Ninth Circuit accepted certification for the interlocutory appeal. Specifically, the Ninth Circuit noted that both district courts in the Ninth Circuit and circuit courts are in disagreement over the availability of punitive damages to an injured seaman for claims arising under federal general maritime law. The Panel accepted certification to specifically resolve the dispute concerning the extent of damages for general maritime law claims. The Panel carefully distinguished claims arising under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. §30104, which prohibits an award of punitive damages.

Since Miles v. Apex Circuit Courts Denied Awards of Punitive Damages to Seamen

In Evich v. Morris, 819 F.2d 256 (9th Cir. 1987) — a seaman’s wrongful death case — the Ninth Circuit upheld a punitive damages award under the general maritime law.

[p]unitive damages are available under general maritime law for claims of unseaworthiness, and for failure to pay maintenance and cure.” The court further held that the standard justifying the award of punitive damages was “conduct which manifest ‘reckless or callous disregard’ for the rights of others . . . or ‘gross negligence or actual malice [or] criminal indifference.’

Id. at 258. Four years later, the landmark Supreme Court decision of Miles v. Apex, ruled that there was no recovery for loss of society either under the Jones Act or for a general maritime law action for the wrongful death of a Jones Act seaman. The Court held:

Today we restore a uniform rule applicable to all actions for the wrongful death of a seaman, whether under DOHSA, the Jones Act, or general maritime law.

Id. at 33. Miles has been routinely applied by lower courts as prohibiting awards of non-pecuniary damages to Jones Act seaman, including awards of punitive damages under the general maritime law.

Both the First Circuit and the Fifth Circuit have construed the Miles decision as prohibiting an award of punitive damages for an unseaworthiness claim asserted by an injured seaman. In Horsley v. Mobil Oil Corporation, 15 F.3d 200 (1st Cir. 1994), a panel of the First Circuit held that “[a]n admiralty court may not extend the remedies available in an unseaworthiness action under the general maritime law to include punitive damages”. Id. Specifically, the court held that punitive damages were not available to an injured seaman in a general maritime law claim for an injury sustained in territorial waters based upon the Miles v. Apex decision.

Twenty years later in McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C., 768 F.3d 382, 384 (5th Cir. 2014), the Fifth Circuit, en banc, held:

We took this case en banc to decide whether the seaman plaintiffs in this case, both the injured seamen and the personal representatives of the deceased seaman, can recover punitive damages under either the Jones Act or the general maritime law. We affirm the district court and conclude that this case is controlled by the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex, which holds that the Jones Act limits a seaman’s recovery to pecuniary losses where liability is predicated on the Jones Act or unseaworthiness. Because punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses, punitive damages may not be recovered in this case.

Id. The Fifth Circuit carefully distinguished the Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), awarding punitive damages to an injured seaman because of the employer’s recalcitrant failure to pay maintenance and cure. The Fifth Circuit’s opinion relied upon the fact that the Supreme Court in Atlantic Sounding clearly recognized that the seaman’s remedy of maintenance and cure is dissimilar to negligence-based actions, reaffirming that “Miles is still good law.” Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit determined that Townsend did not either overrule or restrict the application of Miles.

The Ninth Circuit Rejects the First and Fifth Circuit Positions

Against this backdrop of longstanding and well-established precedent, the Ninth Circuit accepted the interlocutory appeal on the sole issue of the availability of punitive damages to an injured seaman. In addition, the Court evaluated whether its 1987 holding in Evich had been overruled by Miles. The Panel of the Ninth Circuit interpreted the Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Sounding as an endorsement of punitive damages in general maritime law actions:

Whatever room might be left to support broadening Miles to cover punitive damages was cut off by the Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend. The shipowner in Townsend argued that Miles barred punitive damages for willful failure to pay maintenance and cure. The Court noted that ‘[h]istorically, punitive damages have been available and awarded in general maritime actions.’ It found that ‘nothing in Miles or the Jones Act eliminates that availability. Unseaworthiness is a general maritime law action long predating the Jones Act.’

The Panel held that Miles should not be extended to bar punitive damages under the general maritime law for an injured seaman:

It is true, as Dutra contends, that Miles, taken alone, might arguably be read to suggest that the available damages for a general maritime unseaworthiness claim by an injured seaman should be limited to those damages permissible under the Jones Act for wrongful death. But that is a stretch.

The Panel further relied upon the dissent of the Fifth Circuit’s McBride decision that:

Townsend announced the default rule that punitive damages are available for actions under the general maritime law (such as unseaworthiness).

McBride at 413, n.16. Accordingly, the Panel concluded that the Evich decision had not been implicitly overruled by the Supreme Court decision in Miles and that punitive damages may be recovered in an unseaworthiness claim by an injured seaman.

Conclusion

The Batterton decision creates an anomaly in the Ninth Circuit that is inconsistent with the uniform refusal of sister circuit courts to award punitive damages to seaman under the federal general maritime law. Whether the U.S. Supreme Court will accept review to resolve the split among the circuits and provide further clarity on this issue remains to be seen.