In 2019, a Supreme Court decision resolved a discrepancy between two judicial circuits, ruling punitive damages are not permitted under the Jones Act if the case involves unseaworthiness, a decision that could impact many sailors in Louisiana. The six to three decision was related to The Dutro Group v. Batterton in which a deckhand suffered a crushed hand when a hatch blew open due to pressurized air buildup. The deckhand then sued under the Jones Act claiming the vessel was not seaworthy.
The Jones Act and unseaworthiness
A seaworthy vessel is one with a crew, hull and equipment are adequate in maintenance, design and character to perform the functions necessary to operate the ship. It does not mean the vessel cannot be navigated, but a vessel can be determined unseaworthy if it is not safe or provide the necessary appliances a seaman needs to perform their duties. It must also provide them with a safe place to work.
Supreme Court decision
Judge Samuel Alito explained in his opinion that the Supreme Court created ambiguity in regard to unseaworthiness and punitive damages. Punitive damages have never been permitted under the Jones Act, although compensatory damages may be awarded based on unseaworthiness. The Supreme Court agreed, stating that there was no historical basis for allowing punitive damages in the case of unseaworthiness and that it would create “bizarre disparities” in the law. They also felt it would put vessel owners at a competitive disadvantage to owners in countries that also do not allow punitive damages.
Maritime law expert response
Maritime and Jones Act experts reacted swiftly to the decision. Experts stated that this decision definitively ends the ability of an injured seaman to receive punitive damages based on unseaworthiness. For those who represent vessel owners, the decision is welcome as the Supreme Court made clear what should never have been in question. Those that represent seamen in Jones Act cases claim that the decision removes one of the factors that could be used in settlement discussions.
An injury on a vessel is covered by maritime law, including the Jones Act. In order to have your rights protected after such an injury, it is important to talk to an attorney who understands maritime law.