An important part of maritime law is the Doctrine of Unseaworthiness, which protects seamen from ships that can potentially cause workers harm. In a recent Supreme Court decision, the justices decided in favor of a ship company and against a seaman trying to apply this law in the pursuit of punitive damages. The decision will impact many future safety incidents in which seamen are injured and file against their employers or the ship owners.
Dutra Group v. Batterton
The case in question was first brought by seaman Christopher Batterton. He worked as a deckhand on the crew of several ships owned by the Dutra Group. Batterton suffered a serious injury when hatch cover blew under pressure and crushed his hand.
Batterton filed a lawsuit against Dutra claiming that the ship did not have the right exhaust mechanism. Had the appropriate mechanism been in place, he said, the cover would not have blown off and his hand would still be intact. He claimed that this issue with the ship made it unseaworthy and claimed damages under the Doctrine of Unseaworthiness.
What came under question was not that Batterton was owed some type of compensation for his injury. But he claimed punitive damages under the Doctrine. The initial court agreed with him, but Dutra Group appealed. A Ninth Circuit court upheld the punitive damages, and the company appealed again, taking the final decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion, which argued that there was no historical precedent for allowing punitive damages under the Doctrine of Unseaworthiness. He also identified the main point of the Doctrine as protecting seamen who refused to board ships they considered unseaworthy. Over the years it expanded to a law that allowed seamen to sue over personal injury. He also cited an earlier precedent in which the court limited a seaman’s wrongful death damages to compensatory damages.
The Impact of the Decision
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to not allow punitive damages under the Doctrine of Unseaworthiness maintains a status quo. Seamen will see no changes in how they seek damages and the types of compensation they can get after an accident.
What the decision did was avert a major shift in maritime laws. The majority opinion stated that by allowing punitive damages, the entire U.S. shipping industry could have become significantly disadvantaged on the global market. The Court also signaled with this decision that any changes to maritime law would have to be made by Congress, not the judicial system.
Unseaworthiness and Compensatory Damages
It is important for all seamen to remember that this case ruled only punitive damages, the damages intended to punish the defendant. If you have been hurt on a ship and believe you have a claim of unseaworthiness or negligence on the part of your employer. it is essential that you hire representation so that you can recover the necessary compensatory damages.
These are the costs you face because of your injury. You may be able to recover damages for your medical expenses, travel costs associated with medical care, lost wages, and lost potential wages if you are unable to continue doing the same job. There may also be room to claim damages for pain and suffering and other non-economic costs. Hire an experienced maritime lawyer if the worst happens and you get hurt on the job.