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As a practicing attorney at Chamberlain Hrdlicka in Houston, the focus of my practice is two-fold: I represent companies and individuals in civil litigation. I also do extensive work (of both a litigation and transactional nature) in the Admiralty, Maritime, and Energy fields.

I have been licensed to practice law since 2003. During that time, I've first and second chaired several trials to verdicts, as well as handled hundreds of other cases to amicable resolutions.

I'm a product of public schools, specifically Friendswood High School in Friendswood, Texas (Class of 1996), The University of Texas at Austin (BA-2000), and The University of Texas School of Law (JD - 2003).

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Dutra Group v. Batterton: the Supreme Court holds a Jones Act Seaman cannot recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness

Dutra Group v. Batterton: the Supreme Court holds a Jones Act Seaman cannot recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness

Decisions where courts ultimately awarded some form of punitive or exemplary damages litter Admiralty and Maritime jurisprudence in the United States.  A question that has long vexed lower courts is: whether a Jones Act seaman can recover punitive damages for grossly unseaworthy conduct on the part of the shipowner?  As of Monday, we now have the answer to this extremely important question.

General Background

On Monday, June 24, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a 6-3 decision in Dutra Group v. Batterton, No. 18-266.  You can read the actual opinion here:


I will refer to this case simply as Batterton, since he was the original plaintiff.  I wrote about this case last summer, urging SCOTUS to accept cert and finally resolve this issue.  I highly recommend you stop reading this, click on the link below, open it in another window, and read my July 2018 article - https://www.chamberlainlaw.com/maritime-proctor/batterton-v-dutra-group-and-the-latest.

A good deal of my analysis from last year, particularly the history of the unseaworthiness remedy, is relevant to how SCOTUS decided the issue in Batterton on Monday.

However for those who don’t want to read the article, what follows is a brief overview of a couple of key terms, comprehension of which is necessary to understand what SCOTUS did in Batterton.

First, we have to understand the difference between seamen and other maritime workers.  The type of maritime worker the GML considers to be Jones Act seamen is based upon a two-part test articulated by the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis:

(1) did the employee’s duties at the time of the incident, contribute to the function of the vessel or accomplishment of its mission; and (2) was the employee’s connection, if any, to the vessel (or an identifiable fleet of vessels) substantial in terms of both duration and nature.[1]

Second, we need to understand the interplay between court-made common law – the GML – and statutory maritime law passed by Congress.  Of relevance to Batterton is the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, or the Jones Act, passed by Congress after World War I to create a statutory framework for certain aspects of maritime law in the United States.  Part of the Jones Act allows a seaman to directly sue their employer for negligence,[2] using the standard established in the Federal Employers Liability Act (governing railroad workers).[3]

The Constitution directly grants federal courts jurisdiction over “admiralty and maritime” cases.[4]  Thus, federal courts sit as a common-law court when hearing a case sounding in Admiralty.[5]  If Congress is silent on a particular issue, this directive tasks federal courts with development of common-law rules particular to admiralty and maritime cases.[6]  If Congress or the states have legislation, the over-riding principle of uniformity in admiralty and maritime law mandates federal courts look to the statutory law for guidance in forming the common law.[7]

Finally, unseaworthiness is a common-law cause of action afforded to a seaman under the General Maritime Law of the United States (“GML”).  Unseaworthiness pre-dates the passage of the Jones Act.[8]  In modern jurisprudence, a seaworthy vessel is one reasonably fit for her intended use or route and service.[9]  Thus, a successful (modern) unseaworthiness claim requires a seaman demonstrate an injury caused by a defective condition of the ship, its equipment, appurtenances, and/or crew,[10] and that said defect proximately caused the alleged injuries.[11]

With these basic principles in mind, we can now turn to Batterton.

Batterton’s Procedural History

On August 14, 2014, a pressurized hatch cover blew open aboard the SCOW 3 and crushed the left hand of Christopher Batterton.[12]  He sued Dutra Group in the Central District of California, claiming negligence under the Jones Act, as well as unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure under the GML.[13]  As part of his GML claims, Batterton alleged entitlement to punitive damages.[14]  Dutra filed a Motion to Strike the punitive damage claims for unseaworthiness, but Magistrate Judge Patrick J. Walsh denied that request on December 15, 2014, determining that the law on punitive damages was “equivocal and unsettled” and that Ninth Circuit precedent, specifically Evich v. Morris,[15] allowed a seaman to recover punitive damages.[16]

The Ninth Circuit affirmed in a January 23, 2018 decision.[17]  The majority opinion noted if left to just Ninth Circuit precedent, Evich v. Morris answered the question posed in 1987 and allows a seaman to recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness.[18]  But, the Ninth Circuit went on to discuss two SCOTUS opinions: Miles v. Apex Marine[19] from 1990 and Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend[20] from 2008. 

The former opinion held a wrongful death claim under the Jones Act for negligence could not recover anything but pecuniary losses because of FELA jurisprudence existing prior to passage of the Jones Act in 1920.[21]  As punitive/exemplary damages are non-pecuniary in nature, logically following Miles means a Jones Act seaman cannot recover such damages in a negligence action under the Jones Act.  The Townsend decision held a seaman could recover punitive damages for a willful, wanton, and wrongful denial of maintenance and cure benefits, since the maintenance and cure remedy (as well as punitive damages for same) pre-dated passage of the Jones Act and there was no indication in the Jones Act that Congress wanted to alter pre-existing common law on the subject.[22]

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit held Evich was not irreconcilable with Miles, and thus upheld the District Court.[23]  However, even if Evich didn’t exist, the Ninth Circuit said Townsend meant punitive damages were available in an unseaworthiness claim.[24]

The SCOTUS Opinions

SCOTUS granted Dutra Group’s writ of certiorari on December 7, 2018,[25] and held oral arguments in the case on March 25, 2019.  Justice Alito authored the majority opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts as well as Justices Thomas, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined.  Justice Ginsberg dissented, and Justices Breyer and Sotomayor joined in that dissent.

The majority first engaged in a comprehensive history of not only the existence, but also the evolution of the substance of an unseaworthiness claim under the GML.[26]  The key analysis in the majority, in my opinion, was the noted shift in the substance of the remedy in 1903.  The Osceola, according to Justice Alito, is the first instance when a federal court held the GML remedy of unseaworthiness allowed for damages to a seaman from a vessel owner because of the vessel owner’s failure to provide a seaworthy ship.[27]  Even then, a seaman could not recover under unseaworthiness for the conduct of the master or crew of the vessel, but only for the conduct of the vessel owner.[28]  Eventually, unseaworthiness evolved into its modern form after passage of the Jones Act, and Justice Alito noted that “between the 1950s and 1970s … unseaworthiness … [was] the essential basis for recovery” with the Jones Act negligence count used only to obtain a jury trial.[29]

In that context, the majority ultimately made two key holdings.  First, there was no history of punitive damage awards for unseaworthiness claims.[30]  My analsyis is that this is due to the fluid nature of unseaworthiness traced by SCOTUS over 19th and 20th Centruy jurisprudence.  Second, and in light of the lack of history, the similarities between Jones Act negligence (where non-pecuniary losses like punitive damages are prohibited) and modern unseaworthiness were more of a persuasive factor on the issue presented than the GML nature of unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure.  Thus, Miles, not Townsend, controlled the issue, and punitive damages were not available for unseaworthiness.[31]

If Justice Alito’s majority tacked to starboard, Justice Ginsburg’s dissent steered to port.  She analyzed unseaworthiness as a GML remedy that pre-dated the Jones Act, and thus, under Townsend, punitive damages should be available.[32]

There is also a bit of interesting dictum in this case relating to the long-held, indeed foundational holding of Harden v. Gordon by Justice Joseph Story that seamen are “wards of the court,” because seamen in 1820:

… are generally poor and friendless, and acquire habits of gross indulgence, carelessness, and improvidence.  If some provision not be made for them in sickness at the expense of the ship, they must often in foreign ports suffer the accumulated evils of disease, and poverty, and sometimes perish from the want of suitable nourishment.  Their common earnings in many instances are wholly inadequate to provide for the expenses of sickness; and if liable to be so applied, the great motives for good behavior might be ordinarily taken away by pledging their future as well as past wages for the redemption of the debt. In many voyages, particularly those to the West Indies, the whole wages are often insufficient to meet the expenses occasioned by the perilous diseases of those insalubrious climates. On the other hand, if these expenses are a charge upon the ship, the interest of the owner will be immediately connected with that of the seamen. The master will watch over their health with vigilance and fidelity. He will take the best methods, as well to prevent diseases, as to ensure a speedy recovery from them. He will never be tempted to abandon the sick to their forlorn fate; but his duty, combining with the interest of his owner, will lead him to succor their distress, and shed a cheering kindness over the anxious hours of suffering and despondency. [33]

One could see the Batterton majority laying the foundation to read the “wards of the court” protection out of the GML.[34]  Justice Alito wrote “the special solitude to sailors has only a small role to play in contemporary maritime law,” and ultimately determined that even though seamen were wards of the court, that would not tip the scales in favor of allowing punitive damages for unseaworthiness.[35]  I suggest we store this nugget away for later, as it may be revisited in subsequent SCOTUS decisions.

[1] 515 U.S. 347, 368 (1995).

[2] See 46 U.S.C. § 30104.

[3] 45 U.S.C. § 51.

[4] U.S. Const. art. III, § 2.

[5] Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 489-90 (2008).

[6] East River S.S. Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 864-65 (1986).

[7] See Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 26-27 (1990).

[8] The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158, 175 (1903).

[9] Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539, 550 (1960).

[10] The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158, 175 (1903); Martinez v. Sea Land Services, Inc., 763 F.2d 26, 27 (1st Cir. 1985) (the hull of the ship); Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co., 321 U.S. 96 (1944)(ship's cargo handling machinery covered); Gosnell v. Sea-Lanjd Service, Inc., 782 F.2d 464 (4th Cir. 1986)(hand tools aboard the ship).

[11] Alvarez v. J. Ray McDermott & Co., Inc., 674 F.2d 1037, 1042-43 (5th Cir. 1982).

[12] Batterton v. Dutra Group, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 189871 at *1-2 (C.D Cal. Dec. 15, 2014).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] 819 F. 2d 256, 258 (9th Cir. 1987).

[16] 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 189871 at *4-5.

[17] Dutra Group v. Batterton, 880 F.3d 1089 (9th Cir. 2018).

[18] 880 F.3d 1089, 1091.

[19] 498 U.S. 19 (1990).

[20] 557 U.S. 404 (2008).

[21] 498 U.S. 19, 32.

[22] 557 U.S. 404, 419-20.

[23] 880 F.3d 1089, 1096.

[24] Id.

[25] Dutra Group v. Batterton, 139 S.Ct. 627 (December 7, 2018).

[26] __ U.S. ___, 2019 U.S. Lexis 4202 at *6-13, No. 18-266 (June 24, 2019).

[27] Id. at *9.

[28] Id.

[29] Id. at 11, citing to Grant Gilmore & Charles L. Black, The Law of Admiralty §6-20 at 327-28 (2d ed. 1975).

[30] ___ U.S. ____, 2019 U.S. Lexis 4202 at *15-19.

[31] Id. at *25-26.

[32] ___ U.S. ___, 2019 U.S. Lexis 4202 at *29-31 (June 24, 2019)(Ginsburg, J. dissenting).

[33] 11 F.Cas. 480, 483, 2 Mason 541 (No 6,047), 2000 A.M.C. 893 (CC Maine 1823).

[34] ___ U.S. ____, 2019 U.S. LEXIS 4202, *14 (June 24, 2019).

[35] Id.