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Maritime Alert: Supreme Court Denies Right to Punitive Damages for Unseaworthiness Actions

By Kari Springer —

Kari SpringerIn a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that punitive damages remain unavailable in unseaworthiness actions and reversed the Ninth Circuit. The Court rejected Christopher Batterton’s claim for punitive damages against Dutra Group for his injuries when a vessel hatch blew open and injured his hand.

In the majority opinion, Justice Alito said, “Overwhelming historical evidence suggests that punitive damages are not available.” The Court also said the cases relied upon by Batterton, The Rolph and The Noddleburn, do not support an argument for punitive damages because those cases involved maintenance and cure claims, not unseaworthiness.  Further, the Court was not persuaded by Batterton’s argument that punitive damages should be awarded on policy grounds. The Court said to introduce a new remedy would go beyond their powers and elected to leave such changes to lawmakers.

Lastly, in Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion, she argued the Ninth Circuit should be affirmed because the general rule that “punitive damages available at common law extended to claims arising under federal maritime law” should not be displaced without showing punitive damages were actually unavailable in unseaworthiness actions.

Read the full opinion here.

Kari Springer is an attorney at Gawthrop Greenwood, PC and can be reached at kspringer@gawthrop.com or 610-696-8225. For more information on Gawthrop Greenwood’s comprehensive suite of Maritime & Transportation services, click here.

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