The Supreme Court Rejects Punitive Damages in Unseaworthiness Claims

Keith B. Letourneau, William R. Bennett III, John D. Kimball, and Zachary J. Wyatte

A recent United States Supreme Court ruling held that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a maritime claim of unseaworthiness. This new ruling has resolved a split among the circuits and has essentially reinforced an otherwise long-standing precedent.

On June 24, 2019, the United States Supreme Court decided Dutra Group v. Batterton, holding 6-3, that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness. Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court in which Justices Roberts, Thomas, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Breyer and Sotomayor joined.

This case arose from a personal injury incident aboard a vessel. Christopher Batterton was working as a deckhand on the vessel, which The Dutra Group owned and operated, when a hatch cover blew open and severely injured his hand. Batterton sued Dutra, asserting a variety of claims, including unseaworthiness, and sought general and punitive damages. Dutra moved to dismiss the punitive damages claim, arguing that such damages were not available on claims for unseaworthiness. The District Court denied Dutra’s motion, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. But the Supreme Court reversed.

The Court noted that the overwhelming historical evidence suggests that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness claims and that the lack of punitive damages in traditional maritime law cases is “practically dispositive.” The Court said, “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.”

Please click here for the full client alert.