February 22, 2018, Trial News | The American Association For Justice

February 22, 2018, Trial News

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Ninth Circuit rules punitive damages available for unseaworthiness claims

Mandy Brown

illustration of boat on the ocean, next to oil rigs

Punitive damages may be awarded to injured parties bringing general maritime unseaworthiness claims, the Ninth Circuit has ruled. While circuits remain split on this issue, the court’s decision resolves a district court divide within the Ninth Circuit. AAJ filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit in support of the plaintiff.
 

Punitive damages may be awarded to injured parties bringing general maritime unseaworthiness claims, the Ninth Circuit has ruled. While circuits remain split on this issue, the court’s decision resolves a district court divide within the Ninth Circuit. (Batterton v. Dutra Grp., 2018 WL 505256 (9th Cir. Jan. 23, 2018).)

Christopher Batterton was a deckhand on a vessel owned and operated by Dutra Group. While working on the ship in navigable waters, Batterton’s hand was crushed when a hatch cover blew open after pressurized air was pumped into the compartment below. The vessel did not have an exhaust mechanism to properly release the pressure, allegedly making the vessel unseaworthy.

Batterton sued Dutra Group in the Central District of California, seeking relief that included punitive damages. The defendant filed a motion to strike the prayer for punitive damages, which the district court denied. The district court then certified the question of whether punitive damages may be awarded for unseaworthiness claims for interlocutory appeal. The Ninth Circuit answered that punitive damages are available in these circumstances and affirmed the district court’s denial of the defendant’s motion.

The Ninth Circuit had previously ruled in Evich v. Morris (819 F.2d 256 (9th Cir. 1987)) that punitive damages in a wrongful death case are available “for claims of unseaworthiness, and for failure to pay maintenance and cure.” In Evich, the court distinguished those general maritime claims from those brought under the Jones Act, which precludes punitive damages.

Here, the Ninth Circuit analyzed whether Evich had been implicitly overruled by Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. (498 U.S. 19 (1990)). In Miles, the U.S. Supreme Court found that loss of society and lost future earnings damages are not available in general maritime actions because wrongful death damages are limited to pecuniary losses and because recovery under the Jones Act is limited to losses the decedent suffered while alive. The Supreme Court also stated, however, that the Jones Act “evinces no general hostility to recovery under maritime law” and does not “disturb seamen’s general maritime claims for injuries resulting from unseaworthiness” or “preclude the recovery for wrongful death due to unseaworthiness.”

Highlighting this language, the Ninth Circuit held that Miles had not overruled Evich because the reasoning in the two decisions is not “fundamentally inconsistent.” The court also pointed to Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend (557 U.S. 404 (2009)), in which the Supreme Court held that punitive damages are available in maintenance and cure cases. After applying these precedents, the court found that “Evich remains good law.”

“This has been a murky area of law for some time, and I’m very pleased that the Ninth Circuit recognized that Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. did not preclude punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases,” said San Pedro, Calif., attorney Preston Easley, who represents the plaintiff. “What cracked the door open is the Supreme Court’s ruling in Townsend. We extrapolated from that case that if punitive damages are available under general maritime law for maintenance and cure claims, then they should also be available for unseaworthiness claims. And the Ninth Circuit agreed.”

Rejecting the defense’s argument that Evich had been overruled, the Ninth Circuit also declined to follow the reasoning in McBride v. Estis Well Service (768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014) (en banc)), in which the Fifth Circuit held that “punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses” that could not be recovered under either the Jones Act or general maritime law.

“One fascinating aspect of this decision is that the court declined to enter an age-old debate about whether punitive damages reflect pecuniary or non-pecuniary losses, determining instead that they’re neither,” Easley explained. “The court reasoned that punitive damages do not involve a loss at all because they don’t restore anything to the plaintiff and are intended instead to punish the defendant for its conduct. This decision creates a split between the Ninth and Fifth Circuits. We believe that the defendant will file a cert petition—and that there’s a good chance it will be granted.”

Jeffrey White, associate general counsel of AAJ, agreed. “This decision is a crucial victory in protecting seamen from willful, and therefore preventable, harms. We expect this issue to be addressed soon by the Supreme Court and that the Ninth Circuit’s unanimous opinion demonstrating the historic common law roots of punitive damages in maritime cases will be very persuasive.” AAJ filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit in support of the plaintiff.