On June 24, the Supreme Court held in Dutra Group v. Batterton that punitive damages may not be awarded under federal maritime law in connection with an unseaworthiness claim.
Because the case is, at least on its face, limited to the context of federal maritime law, I will not tarry long on either the underlying facts or the relevant maritime history and principles.
In a nutshell, seamen who have been injured while working on a vessel may pursue two overlapping, but not entirely duplicative, claims—a negligence claim under the Jones Act, and a strict-liability claim under the doctrine of unseaworthiness.
Punitive damages have never been permitted under the Jones Act. Although compensatory damages for personal injury have been available under the doctrine of unseaworthiness since the turn of the last century, punitive damages were rarely (if ever) awarded in connection with an unseaworthiness claim as of the enactment of the Jones Act in 1920.
More recently, however, two federal courts of appeals (including the Ninth Circuit in Dutra) and one state supreme court have authorized recovery of punitive damages for unseaworthiness, while one federal court of appeals has held that they are categorically unavailable. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Dutra to resolve that split in authority.
In an opinion by Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court held that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness claims.
The Court reasoned that “there is no historical basis for allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions”; doing so would create an undesirable incongruity with the Jones Act, under which punitive damages are unavailable; allowing punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims would create other “bizarre disparities” in the law; and affording this remedy to injured seamen would place American vessel owners “at a significant competitive disadvantage” vis-a-vis vessel owners from countries that do not allow punitive damages.
Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented. They contended, among other things, that, because there is no evidence that punitive damages were unavailable for unseaworthiness claims, “the generally applicable common-law rule allowing punitive damages should not be displaced.”
Beyond bringing needed clarity to maritime law, Dutra establishes once and for all that punitive damages are not available under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), the federal statute that provides a negligence-based cause of action for railroad workers who are injured on the job. The Court had to reach this question because the Jones Act adopts the remedial provisions of FELA.
It long has been presumed that punitive damages are not available under FELA and hence are not available under the Jones Act—but the Supreme Court had never expressly said so. In Dutra, the Court reaffirmed that punitive damages are not available under FELA, and hence the Jones Act, as a predicate for its holding that allowing punitive damages for unseaworthiness would undermine consistency with the Jones Act.
Two other aspects of the decision may also have broader implications.
First, one of the Court’s rationales for declining to allow punitive damages in connection with unseaworthiness claims was that doing so “would place American shippers at a significant competitive disadvantage and discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen” because punitive damages are not permitted in most other countries.
This rationale—which my colleague Matt Waring and I advanced in our amicus brief on behalf of six fishing-industry trade groups—would appear to apply in other contexts in which punitive damages are governed by federal law. And if it applies in such contexts, it could justify either declining to infer the availability of punitive damages when Congress has not expressly provided for them or placing strict judicial limitations on the amount of such damages when Congress has provided for them.
Second, in rejecting Batterton’s argument that the federal policy of solicitude for seamen warrants allowing punitive damages in connection with unseaworthiness claims, the Court responded that this policy “has never been a commandment that maritime law must favor seamen whenever possible.”
This holding is strongly reminiscent of the Court’s statement in Norfolk Southern Railway v. Sorrell twelve years ago that, although “FELA was indeed enacted to benefit railroad employees,” “[i]t does not follow … that this remedial purpose requires us to interpret every uncertainty in the Act in favor of employees.”
This represents—dare I say—a sea-change in the Court’s approach to remedial statutes. I expect that it may influence not only the availability and amount of punitive damages under federal law, but other questions bearing on the scope of federal remedial legislation as well.