Jul 1 2019 0

U.S. Supreme Court rules punitive damages cannot be sought for unseaworthiness claims; Court leaves undisturbed customary and traditional rights of injured mariners.

Article III of the Constitution states that the “judicial power shall extend . . . to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.” In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress granted to the district courts exclusive original jurisdiction in civil cases in admiralty and maritime matters.


DCA Summary:

  • Dutra Group v. Christopher Batterton (June 24, 2019) (“Dutra” or “Dutra v. Batterton”) was decided by a 6-3 majority[1] in the U.S. Supreme Court, finding that mariners injured as a result of unseaworthy vessel conditions may not seek punitive damages from vessel owners.
  • Dutra Group (Dutra) is a dredging services company operating a fleet of Jones Act dredges in the United States. Dutra is a member of the Dredging Contractors of America.  The Dredging Contractors of America filed an Amicus Brief with the Supreme Court supporting Dutra.
  • This is the second time in nearly ten (10) years-to-the-day that the U.S. Supreme Court has considered whether punitive damages can attach to a seaman’s claim.
  • The decision leaves undisturbed all of the customary and traditional seaman’s rights and protections under the Jones Act and general maritime law.
  • Shipowner/operators are still subject to punitive damage claims by mariners when the shipowner/operator intentionally withholds maintenance and cure—medical care and living expenses—for sailors injured in the service of the vessel. Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for 5-4 majority[2] in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend (June 25, 2009), holding, punitive damages for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation.  However, Justice Thomas agreed with the majority in Dutra in not allowing punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims.
  • Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority in Dutra, conducted an extensive and historical review of the rich history of maritime law and mariner protections dating back centuries before the formation of United States, including, the Laws of Oleron, promulgated by Eleanor of Aquitaine around 1160, in the 13th century Laws of Wisbuy, in the Laws of the Hanse Towns, published in 1597, and in the Marine Ordinances of Louis XIV, published in 1681.


In Dutra v. Batterton, the Supreme Court ruled that an injured merchant mariner cannot seek punitive damages based on the common-law maritime claim of unseaworthiness.  The plaintiff worked as a deckhand and crewmember on vessels owned and operated by the Dutra Group. According to the complaint, while working on a scow near Newport Beach, California, the plaintiff was injured when his hand was caught between a bulkhead and a hatch that blew open as a result of unventilated air accumulating and pressurizing within the compartment.

The plaintiff sued Dutra and asserted a variety of claims, including negligence, unseaworthiness, maintenance and cure, and unearned wages. He sought to recover general and punitive damages. Dutra moved to strike plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages, arguing that they are not available on claims for unseaworthiness.  The federal district court denied Dutra’s motion to strike punitive damages and the Ninth Circuit affirmed that denial.  Dutra then took it motion to strike punitive damages from a seaman’s unseaworthiness claim to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Circuit Courts Split on Punitive Damages

Dutra resolves a split between the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, with the Ninth Circuit covering the West Coast joining the Eleventh Circuit in Florida allowing punitive damages, while the Fifth Circuit covering most of the Gulf Coast and the First Circuit in New England holding punitive damages are unavailable.

In this Dutra Group v. Batterton decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court noted that it has twice in the past several decades considered the issue of whether a mariner may recover punitive damages on a claim that he was injured as a result of the unseaworthy condition of the vessel.  Justice Alito concludes, “because there is no historical basis for allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions, and in order to promote uniformity with the way courts have applied parallel statutory causes of action, we hold that punitive damages remain unavailable in unseaworthiness actions.

Historical Causes of Action:  Maintenance and Cure and Unseaworthiness

In deciding Dutra, the Court reviewed the two traditional causes of action that protect seamen from injury – maintenance and cure and unseaworthiness.  The overwhelming historical evidence indicates that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness claims.

First, the maintenance and cure doctrine is rooted in medieval and renaissance law codes that form the ancient foundation of maritime common law. Justice Alito notes, maintenance and cure stems from the Laws of Oleron, promulgated by Eleanor of Aquitaine around 1160, in the 13th century Laws of Wisbuy, in the Laws of the Hanse Towns, published in 1597, and in the Marine Ordinances of Louis XIV, published in 1681.  Indeed, the Dutra Court noted, as recently as 2001[3] that “the duty of maintenance and cure requires a ship’s master to provide food, lodging, and medical services to a seaman injured while in the service of the ship.

Next, a seaman’s right to recover damages for personal injury on a claim of unseaworthiness originates in the admiralty court decisions of the 19th century.  Maritime law was largely judge-made.  The primary responsibility for protecting seamen lay in the courts, which saw mariners as peculiarly entitled to— and particularly in need of—judicial protection against the effects of the superior skill and shrewdness of masters and owners of ships.[4]

In 1903 the Supreme Court first recognized unseaworthiness[5] as a basis for a seaman’s personal injury claim.  However, if the seaman were injured by another member of the crew or by negligence of Captain, he could not recover under the then unseaworthiness doctrine.  Instead, the seaman had to show that he was injured by some aspect of the ship’s condition that rendered the vessel unseaworthy – meaning that the owner of the vessel had failed to exercise “due diligence” in ensuring the vessel was seaworthy.

In the late 1940’s the Supreme Court, not Congress, transformed the unseaworthiness claim from a due diligence standard to a “strict liability” standard.  The Court held that seaworthiness was “essentially a species of liability without fault.”  Basically, shipowners could not defend against an unseaworthiness claim – from 1946 to present time, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, seaworthiness reflects the understanding that the owner’s duty to furnish a seaworthy ship is absolute and completely independent of his duty under the Jones Act to exercise reasonable care.

Governing Supreme Court Decisions for Dutra v. Batterton

Dutra is governed by Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., (1990)[6] and Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend (2009)[7]. The Miles decision established that the Court “should look primarily to . . . legislative enactments for policy guidance” when exercising its inherent common law authority over maritime and admiralty cases, while recognizing that such statutory remedies may be supplemented to “achieve the uniform vindication” of the policies served by the relevant statutes.  In Atlantic Sounding, the Court allowed recovery of punitive damages but justified that departure from the statutory remedial scheme based on the established history of awarding punitive damages for certain maritime torts, including maintenance and cure.

Miles concerned a wrongful- death claim under the general maritime law holding that recovery was limited to pecuniary damages, which did not include loss of society.  Then, in Atlantic Sounding, the court held that punitive damages are not categorically barred as part of the award on the traditional maritime claim of maintenance and cure. In Atlantic Sounding, the Court allowed recovery of punitive damages because of the vessel operator’s willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation to the seaman.

In analyzing Dutra, the Supreme Court did not find any decisions from the formative years of the personal injury unseaworthiness claims in which exemplary (punitive) damages were awarded. Therefore, the Court concluded that, unlike maintenance and cure, unseaworthiness did not traditionally allow recovery of punitive damages.

Jones Act Remedies for Seamen and Congressional Action

The Dutra decision also rejected the theory of punitive damages based on the origins and foundation of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act).  ).  In crafting the Jones Act, Congress borrowed directly from the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) extending to seamen the same regulatory recovery regime that applies to railway employees for personal injury or death.  Seamen could recover pecuniary losses but not for non-pecuniary losses. Importantly, punitive damages were not made available under the Jones Act because Congress incorporated the remedies available under FELA, which do not include punitive damages.

The Supreme Court’s early discussions of the Jones Act followed FELA as did the lower courts by uniformly holding that punitive damages are not available under the Jones Act. In contemporary maritime law, the Supreme Court noted that the overriding objective is to pursue the policy expressed in congressional enactments, and because unseaworthiness in its current strict-liability form is the Court’s own invention and it came after passage of the Jones Act.  Therefore, the Justice Alito concluded that it would exceed the Court’s current role to introduce novel remedies contradictory to those Congress has provided in similar areas.

Relying on Miles, the Court reemphasized: “We are particularly loath to impose more expansive liabilities on a claim governed by strict liability than Congress has imposed for comparable claims based in negligence.” Justice Alito then firmly states, “. . . with the increased role that legislation has taken over the past century of maritime law, we think it wise to leave to the political branches the development of novel claims and remedies.


The Supreme Court ruling in Dutra v. Batterton makes sense.  The decision does not take anything away from the suite of existing seaman’s rights—rights that have been available for over a century.  Rather, the ruling simply does not allow punitive damages to an unseaworthiness claim – an expansion into new and novel areas absent Congress first legislating additional types of available damages.  That said, Captains, shipowners and operators should make sure that they respect the doctrine of maintenance and cure – because punitive damages will attach for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation.

[1] Dutra Group v. Batterton, ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS, KAGAN, GORSUCH, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BREYER and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined.

[2] Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA and KENNEDY, JJ., joined.

[3] Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc., 531 U. S. 438, 441 (2001).

[4] Brown v. Lull, 4 F. Cas. 407, 409 (No. 2,018) (CC Mass. 1836) (Story, J.).

[5] The Osceola, 189 U. S. 158, 175 (1903).

[6] Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U. S. 19, 27 (1990).

[7] Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U. S. 404 (2009).

You Might Also Like