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).
The availability of punitive damages only applies to injured seaman, fisherman, and fish processor cases involving unseaworthiness or the wrongful administration of maintenance and cure benefits. The Ninth Circuit jury instructions defines unseaworthiness as follows:
A vessel is seaworthy if the vessel and all of its parts and equipment are reasonably fit for their intended purpose [and it is operated by a crew reasonably adequate and competent for the work assigned].
A vessel is unseaworthy if the vessel, or any of its parts or equipment, is not reasonably fit for its intended purpose [or if its crew is not reasonably adequate or competent to perform the work assigned].
A vessel owner has a duty to provide adequate safety equipment for the vessel. However, the owner of the vessel is not required to furnish an accident-free ship. A vessel owner is not called on to have the best parts and equipment, or the finest of crews, but is required to have what is reasonably proper and suitable for its intended use, and a crew that is reasonably competent and adequate.
The maritime injury lawyers at Johnson, Beard & Trueb are experienced in representing injured seaman, fisherman, and fish processor in injury claims involving punitive damages. Our lawyers are always on the side of the injured fisherman and seaman. If you have questions about your maritime rights to compensation contact the lawyers at Johnson, Beard & Trueb to discuss your potential claim 907-277-0161 or 425-822-2242.