Circuits Split on Punitive Damages for Unseaworthiness

An overriding premise of admiralty and maritime law is the quest for uniformity. Over the centuries, this has proven problematic, as this area of law is largely not based on statute, but on caselaw. This has led the United States Supreme Court to accept maritime cases to settle disputes between the circuit courts, on issues such as seaman status, Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995), and whether punitive damages are available for the willful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure, Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009).

It’s time for the Supreme Court to resolve another circuit split between the Fifth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals, this time on the issue of whether punitive damages are available in an action for the unseaworthiness of a vessel.

Two Courts, Two Cases, Two Outcomes

In McBride v. Estis Well Services, LLC, 768 F.3d 382 (5thCir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 2310 (2015), the Fifth Circuit held en banc that punitive damages are not an available remedy in an action for unseaworthiness, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Townsend. The Supreme Court denied certiorari in that case.

However, earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit decided Batterton v. Dutra Group, __ F.3d __, No. 15-56775 (9thCir. 2018), rejecting the Fifth Circuit’s analysis in McBride and ruling that punitive damages are available in unseaworthiness actions. While the Fifth Circuit took the position that an unseaworthiness claim is more akin to a Jones Act negligence action, which does not allow for punitive damages, the Ninth Circuit found unseaworthiness claims to more closely resemble maintenance and cure actions.

Both pre-date the enactment of the Jones Act and under the Supreme Court’s analysis in Townsend, both should allow for a punitive damages claim.

The Upshot for Marine Operators

These directly opposed views have again caused confusion in the realm of admiralty law. Marine operators working on both the Pacific and Gulf Coasts face very real differences in how they operate and what insurance coverages they require. This circuit dispute is exactly the type of issue the maritime law seeks to avoid, as there is again significant uncertainty in the remedies available for unseaworthiness claims. The Supreme Court should accept certiorari in Batterton to resolve this dispute.