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.”
On March 19, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court in Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. Devries held that, under maritime law, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn of asbestos or other hazardous parts when its own product, although not containing such hazardous parts, requires its later incorporation, and the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated part is likely to be dangerous for its intended use. The Supreme Court’s decision settles a longstanding conflict between federal and state courts regarding the applicable rule in maritime tort cases. Manufacturers of such products must take this ruling into account when evaluating product warnings.
For years, federal and state courts have struggled to find consensus on the applicable rule regarding a manufacturer’s duty to warn of the danger of its products when those products later had dangerous parts added to them. Prior to Devries, courts generally applied one of three approaches.
The first approach, viewed as plaintiff-friendly, relied on mere foreseeability. Under this approach, if it was foreseeable that the manufacturer’s product would be used with another product or part, even if the manufacturer’s product did not require use or incorporation of that other product or part, then the manufacturer could face liability for failure to warn.
The second approach, viewed as defendant-friendly, relieves manufacturers of any liability if they do not make, sell, or distribute the dangerous part or incorporate the dangerous part into the product, even if the product requires incorporation of the part and the manufacturer knows that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended use (this is also known as the “bare-metal defense”).