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U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Resolve Circuit Split Over Punitive Damages Regarding Unseaworthiness

MARITIME

09/06/2018

By: David Sharpe

On Aug. 31, 2018, the United States Supreme Court was presented with the question of “whether punitive damages may be awarded to a Jones Act seaman in a personal injury suit alleging a breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.”

The question was presented in a petition for writ of certiorari filed by the Dutra Group, which seeks review and reversal of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Batterton v. Dutra Group, 880 F.3d 1089 (9th Cir. 2018). The unanimous panel opinion in Batterton, written by Senior Circuit Judge Kleinfeld, held that the district court correctly denied Jones Act employer Dutra Group’s motion to refuse seaman Batterton’s request for punitive damages.

Although the court expressed no view on the merits, the court concluded that punitive damages “are indeed awardable to seamen for their own injuries in general maritime unseaworthiness actions.” 880 F.3d at 1096. Dutra Group’s petition for rehearing en banc was denied.

In ruling that punitive damages are an available remedy for a seafarer’s unseaworthiness claim, the Ninth Circuit recognized its split with the Fifth Circuit’s earlier en banc decision in McBride v. Estis Well Service, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014) (en banc), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 2310 (2015).

In McBride, as the Batterton panel observed, a divided Fifth Circuit held that “punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses” that are not recoverable under the Jones Act or the general maritime law. 880 F.3d at 1092. Although the Ninth Circuit described the majority opinions in McBride as “scholarly and well reasoned,” the Ninth Circuit found the dissenting opinions in McBride to be more persuasive. Id. at 1096.

As Dutra Group’s petition for certiorari emphasizes, Batterton is “cert-worthy” both because of the circuit split and because the question presented is one of “considerable importance in maritime law.” Petition for Cert. at 2.

Although the Supreme Court declined to review the Fifth Circuit’s en banc decision in McBride, the split with McBride created by Batterton presents an even better opportunity for the Court to resolve the issue of whether punitive damages are available for unseaworthiness. Considerable input is expected from amici curiae as the Court considers whether to take up this important question.


David Sharpe's maritime law practice focuses on risk management in the marine service market. Lugenbuhl's admiralty & maritime law group provides its clients in the onshore and offshore oilfield-service and alternative energy sectors with a wide range of services. More information about the firm's admiralty & maritime practice is available here.

The content of this article is not intended to serve as an exhaustive review of admiralty & maritime law, and it is not intended to provide legal advice. The opinions expressed through this article may not reflect the opinions of the firm, individual attorneys or clients.