January 24, 2018

Maritime Alert: New U.S. Ninth Circuit Decision Allows Punitive Damages for Unseaworthiness

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New Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Decision Allows Punitive Damages for Seamen’s Unseaworthiness Claims in Personal Injury Actions

In Batterton v. Dutra Group, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that punitive damages are available to injured seaman in general maritime unseaworthiness actions.  The Ninth Circuit relied on both the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, and on its own previous decision in Evich v. Morris where the court held punitive damages were available under general maritime law for claims of unseaworthiness, and for failure to pay maintenance and cure.  In rejecting the reasoning of the Fifth Circuit’s McBride v. Estis Well Service ruling, the Ninth Circuit emphasized that the U.S. Supreme Court in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. did not specifically address punitive damages.  The Ninth Circuit in Batterton affirmed the district court’s decision and denied the defendant’s motion to strike the prayer for punitive damages.

Batterton was decided shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a pair of cases that had split on this same issue.  In Tabingo v. American Triumph LLC, the Washington State Supreme Court recently held that punitive damages are available in a seamen’s general maritime law claim for unseaworthiness.  (While Washington State is located within the geographic range of the Ninth Circuit, state courts deciding maritime law issues are bound only by U.S. Supreme Court precedent and not by decisions of the federal circuit courts of appeals or federal district courts.)  The U.S. Supreme Court also refused to hear McBride v. Estis Well Service, the Fifth Circuit decision that found punitive damages are not available in an unseaworthiness claim.  The Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Batterton further splinters courts on this issue.  The split will last for the foreseeable future because the U.S. Supreme Court’s term has already been set for 2018.  The conflict among the courts not only creates uncertainty for vessel owners and their underwriters in dealing with crew claims, but will also spur plaintiffs to increase their settlement demands in cases within the Ninth Circuit, which includes California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.

Batterton Case Facts:

Plaintiff, Christopher Batterton, was a deckhand on a vessel owned and operated by defendant, Dutra Group.  While he was working aboard the vessel, a hatch cover blew open and crushed his left hand.  The hatch cover blew open because pressurized air was being pumped into a compartment below the cover and the vessel had no exhaust mechanism to relieve the pressure that accumulated.  Batterton claims the vessel was unseaworthy because it lacked any mechanism to safely exhaust the pressurized air.

The district court denied defendant’s motion to strike Batterton’s prayer seeking punitive damages for unseaworthiness, and defendant sought interlocutory appeal.  The Ninth Circuit ruled solely on whether punitive damages can be an available remedy for unseaworthiness claims, and not on whether punitive damages should be awarded in Batterton’s case.

The Ninth Circuit’s Analysis:

The Ninth Circuit noted that in its 1987 decision in Evich v. Morris, the court had previously ruled that punitive damages are recoverable under general maritime law claims for unseaworthiness and for failure to pay maintenance and cure.  That was a wrongful death case, but the court did not limit its finding to death claims.

The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently rendered its decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. in 1990.  In Miles, the Supreme Court ruled that non-pecuniary damages such as loss of society are not available in a general maritime law wrongful death action because the statutory remedy under the Jones Act for the death of a seaman is limited to pecuniary losses.  Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court did not address punitive damages in Miles.  Several courts, including the Fifth Circuit in the McBride case, have relied upon Miles to deny recovery of punitive damages in general maritime law actions on the basis that punitive damages are considered non-pecuniary.  So the question for the Ninth Circuit in Batterton was whether Miles effectively overruled Evich to disallow punitive damages in injured seaman’s unseaworthiness claims.

The Ninth Circuit noted that the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend that punitive damages are generally available in general maritime law actions.  Since Townsend was decided in 2009, nineteen years after Miles, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that the Supreme Court had implied in Townsend that punitive damages would be available in injured seamen’s unseaworthiness actions, regardless of whatever restrictions Miles imposed in wrongful death actions on non-pecuniary damages.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning in McBride, in which the en banc Fifth Circuit court held that punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses, and thus not recoverable under the Jones Act or under general maritime law.  The Ninth Circuit acknowledged that Miles could arguably be read to limit the damages in an injured seaman’s unseaworthiness claim to the same damages that would be recoverable under a Jones Act negligence claim, which would not include punitive damages.  But the Ninth Circuit was not persuaded by the McBride majority.  Instead they agreed with the McBride dissenters, who found that punitive damages are pecuniary, in that like all damages they are for money.  But they are not for loss or to compensate the claimant.  Punitive damages are awarded to punish and deter.  Thus, the Ninth Circuit concluded that punitive damages are not affected by Miles’ bar on recovery of non-pecuniary losses.

For these reasons, the Ninth Circuit held that Miles and Evich are not in conflict.  Miles did not disturb seamen’s general maritime claims for injuries resulting from unseaworthiness, including a claim for punitive damages. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of defendant’s motion to strike the prayer for punitive damages.  Thus punitive damages are available to seaman for their own injuries in general maritime unseaworthiness actions.

Conclusion:

With the clear split between the circuits and the Washington State Supreme Court, the issue of the availability of punitive damages in an injured seaman’s unseaworthiness claim under general maritime law is ripe for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide.  In the meantime, vessel owners and their underwriters will have less to worry about with their crew member litigation in the Fifth Circuit than they do in the Ninth Circuit.  Only time will tell how it ultimately turns out.

Please click here for a link to the full decision in Batterton, and here for a link to KYL’s prior alert regarding Washington Supreme Court case Tabingo v. American Triumph LLC.

Keesal, Young & Logan Maritime Law Group

This information has been prepared by Keesal, Young & Logan for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Transmission of the information is not intended to create, and receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship between you and Keesal, Young & Logan. You should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.