The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that injured seaman and fisherman may claim punitive damages under the general maritime law unseaworthiness doctrine. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is the law that governs the claims for injured seaman that are filed in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California State and Federal Courts. Governing law in these Courts now permit a seaman who is willfully and recklessly injured as a result of the vessel’s unseaworthiness to claim punitive damages. The standard for an award of punitive damages is “conduct which manifests reckless or callous disregard for the rights of others or gross negligence or actual malice or criminal indifference”. Punitive damages are designed to punish certain wrongful acts and conduct of by the vessel owner and to serve as a deterrent to other vessel to withhold from committing similar wrongful acts.
Punitive damages work. Since the ruling of the Supreme Court in Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend there has been a dramatic shift in the practice of vessel owners in the administration of maintenance and cure benefits. The threat of a potential punitive damage award has resulted in higher maintenance rates, broader approval of medical benefits, and an overall improvement in safety. Unfortunately, there remains many vessel owners who continue to negligent their vessels and operate them in an unseaworthy condition, and who ignore their duties provide proper maintenance and cure benefits. Punitive damages for unseaworthiness will play a vital role in ensuring that vessel owners abided by their duty to maintain and operate their vessels in a seaworthy manner.
The January 26, 2018 in Batterton v. Dutra Group, NO. 15-56775 (9th Cir. 2018) follows the land mark decision of the Supreme Court in Atlantic Soundings v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 464 (2009) and rejected arguments of vessel owner that Miles v. Apex Marine 498 US 19 (1990). The case adopts the Ninth Circuits prior ruling in Evich v. Morris 819 F. 2d 256 (9th Cir. 1987) and rejects the reasoning of the fifth Circuit in McBride vs. Estis Well Services 768 F. 3rd 382 (5th 2014).