Supreme Court: No Punitive Damages for Jones Act Seamen

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Maritime injuries are quite common in South Louisiana given our proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and the huge industries that rely on the water – shipping, energy, transportation, etc. Thousands upon thousands of people in Louisiana are employed on vessels and oil rigs governed by laws almost as old as the sea itself. It is a complex body of law that requires a specialist like Lafayette Attorney Joseph Joy. In fact, attorney Joseph Joy of the Lafayette law firm Joseph Joy and Associates worked on the oil rigs while in Morgan City before going to law school. For over 40 years, Joseph Joy has represented deck hands, rig workers and others  injured while working on the water. And he has recovered millions for clients.

The Jones Act is like a  worker’s compensation system for seamen.  Jones Act claims are brought by seamen against their employer. Unseaworthiness claims  are brought against the vessel’s owner under general maritime law, separate and apart from the Jones Act.

The United States Supreme Court handed down an important case on June 24, 2019, to resolve a conflict among the courts as to  whether or not punitive damages are available to Jones Act seamen under general maritime law for a claim of unseaworthiness.  If you lived in the Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas,  the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal would not allow you to claim punitive damages. However, if you lived in Alaska, California, Arizona or Hawaii, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal would have allowed a claim for punitive damages on an unseaworthiness claim.

That split in the appellate circuit courts prompted the United States Supreme Court to decide the matter once and for all.  The Court’s answer: No.   Punitive damages are not available to Jones Act seamen for unseaworthiness claims. Dutra Group v. Batterton.

Facts of the case: Christopher Batterton was working on a vessel owned by petitioner Dutra Group when a hatch blew open and injured his hand. Batterton sued Dutra, asserting a variety of claims, including unseaworthiness, and seeking general and punitive damages. Dutra moved to dismiss the claim for punitive damages, arguing that they are not available on claims for unseaworthiness.  The Ninth Circuit allowed recovery of punitive damages  even though the overwhelming historical evidence suggests that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness claims.

Justice Alito  cited longstanding precedent that held that punitive damages are not available under the Jones Act. The Court was unwilling to read punitive damages for unseaworthiness into the law.

“This Court cannot sanction a novel remedy here unless it is required to maintain uniformity with Congress’s clearly expressed policies, particularly those in the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act)—which codified the rights of injured mariners… Batterton argues that punitive damages are justified on policy grounds or as a regulatory measure. But unseaworthiness in its current strict-liability form is this Court’s own invention and came after passage of the Jones Act, and a claim of unseaworthiness serves as a duplicate and substitute for a Jones Act claim. It would, therefore, exceed the Court’s objectives of pursuing policies found in congressional enactments and promoting uniformity between maritime statutory law and maritime common law to introduce novel remedies contradictory to those provided by Congress in similar areas.”

“Admiralty law is highly specialized and anyone injured on the water needs to be sure to higher an attorney who specializes in that area,” said Joseph Joy.  “There are a multitude of issues that can arise in these cases, beginning with whether the injured worker qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act. Our firm is highly qualified in litigating the issue of navigability, which is another hotly contested issue in these types of cases,” Joy said.

At Joseph Joy and Associates, we can help you determine who’s at fault, and help you bring a lawsuit against the negligent party’s insurance company. Compensation might be owed for your vessel, your health, and any suffering you may have endured. personal injury due to someone else’s negligence, it’s important to seek the advice of a professional. Call (337) 232-8123 to reach Joseph Joy and Associates.

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