A decision earlier this year by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California will allow an injured seamen to proceed with a lawsuit to seek punitive damages under general maritime law.
In the case of Batterton v. Dutra Group, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that injured seamen have a right to seek punitive damages under general maritime law for the unseaworthiness of a vessel.
Other courts have determined that plaintiffs are not entitled to seek compensation for certain non-pecuniary damages under general maritime laws, but were these rulings broad enough to prohibit all types of non-pecuniary damages? That was the challenge presented to the Ninth Circuit Court in the case of Batterton v. Dutra Group.
Batterton v. Dutra Group
The plaintiff in the case, Christopher Batterton, was working as a deckhand on a vessel owned and operated by the defendant, Dutra Group, at the time of his accident. Pressurized air was being pumped into a compartment. Unfortunately, there was no exhaust mechanism to relieve the pressure when it got too high in the compartment. The build-up of pressure caused a hatch cover to suddenly blow open, crushing Batterton’s left hand. Batterton’s lawsuit argues that the lack of an exhaust mechanism made the vessel unseaworthy, resulting in permanent disability and other damages to the plaintiff.
Among other things, the plaintiff sought compensation for punitive damages. A lower court agreed. The defendant appealed, arguing that recent court decisions prohibited the recovery of non-pecuniary damages. The plaintiff argued that these past rulings addressed only specific non-pecuniary damages; punitive damages were not among them.
How the Ninth Circuit Court Arrived at Their Decision
The defendants brought up a recent decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana, McBride v. Estis Well Service. In this case, the court ruled that an injured worker could not sue for non-pecuniary damages.
The Fifth Circuit based their decision on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. In that case, the court held that the parent of a seaman killed by a fellow crewmember could not recover damages for loss of society under general maritime law. In their decision, the Supreme Court included punitive damages as a type of non-pecuniary damages. The Fifth Circuit interpreted this as a general restriction against recovery of non-pecuniary damages —including punitive damages — in claims brought under general maritime law.
However, another Supreme Court decision seemed to reach the opposite conclusion. In the case of Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, the Supreme Court ruled punitive damages are available to seamen in claims against their employers when they willfully refuse to pay maintenance and cure benefits to an injured maritime worker. The court’s reasoning was based on the fact that both punitive damages and maintenance and cure were a part of maritime law that predated passage of the Jones Act.
The Ninth Circuit court took a broad view of these past rulings and decided the plaintiff was indeed entitled to punitive damages under general maritime law.
How Does This Affect Your Maritime Injury Claim?
A maritime attorney has an obligation to their clients to keep abreast of the latest court decisions. Decisions like the one in Batterton v. Dutra Group, if upheld, could have a profound impact on the amount of compensation a seaman may be able to collect for their on-the-job injuries. An experienced maritime injury lawyer will know how to use decisions like the one in Batterton v. Dutra Group to get their clients the maximum possible compensation for their injuries.
For more than 40 years, the Lambert Firm has been protecting the rights of injured seamen and other maritime workers who have been injured because of the unseaworthiness of a vessel or the negligent actions of a captain or crew. We stay up to date on all changes in maritime laws, such as the recent decision by the Ninth District Court of Appeals in the Batterton v. Dutra Group, to best serve our clients.
If you are a maritime worker who has been injured on the job, please do not hesitate to contact Lambert Zainey to schedule a free consultation with one of our knowledgeable maritime injury attorneys.