Maritime punitive damages

In an earlier post, I discussed the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Dutra Group v. Batterton, which presents the question whether punitive damages may be awarded under federal maritime law in connection with an unseaworthiness claim.

On behalf of six fishing-industry trade associations, my colleague Matt Waring and I submitted an amicus brief in Dutra arguing that the Court should not allow punitive damages to infiltrate this unique body of law.
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When the Supreme Court agrees to hear a punitive damages case, that’s always news—even when the case involves something as arcane as the availability of punitive damages under maritime law.

But the Court’s grant of certiorari in Dutra Group v. Batterton on December 7 is all the more noteworthy because it will be the first punitive damages case in which Justices Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh will have participated as members of the Court. (Justice Alito was a member of the Court when it decided Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker—coincidentally , another maritime case—but recused himself.)

The question that the Court will decide in Dutra is whether a seaman covered by the Jones Act may recover punitive damages in connection with an unseaworthiness claim. The maritime-law doctrine of unseaworthiness provides a cause of action to seamen who are injured due to their employer’s failure to provide a seaworthy vessel. This strict-liability cause of action exists alongside the Jones Act, which provides a cause of action for seamen injured or killed as a result of their employers’ negligence.
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