On Monday, March 25, 2019, the United States Supreme Court held oral argument on Dutra Group v. Batterton in an attempt to resolve a circuit split. The Jones Act case reached the Supreme Court from the Ninth Circuit, whose district courts have held that a claim for punitive damages is available to Jones Act seamen in a general maritime unseaworthiness claim. This is in direct conflict with decisions from the Fifth Circuit, among others, where district courts have held that a Jones Act seaman’s recovery for unseaworthiness under general maritime law does not include punitive damages. It appears the Supreme Court is set to resolve the issue for the lower courts, though the Court’s questions during oral argument on March 25, 2019, did not give much indication as to a favorite side.
The Arguments: A Sojourn Through Legal History
The transcript of arguments reveals a sojourn through legal history stretching back to the founding of the republic, with many stops at decisions in the 19th Century.
Justice Sotomayor first joined the argument by noting that the Jones Act (1920) supplemented whatever remedies were already available under general maritime law, while Justice Kagan wondered why unseaworthiness claims had evolved so much since the Jones Act if Congress had intended for the courts to step back. Justice Breyer focused on differences between the Jones Act and unseaworthiness claims. Justice Alito seemed unreceptive to respondent’s arguments, characterizing it as asking the Court to “put on our common law hat and decide that punitive damages are a good thing” even though there was no pre-Jones Act case allowing punitive damages, a point joined in by Justice Ginsburg. Chief Justice Roberts spoke only to point out differences between maintenance-and-cure claims, where punitive damages are awardable, and unseaworthiness claims. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch did not ask any questions.
Ultimately, the Court must decide if it should defer to Congress regarding seamen’s personal injuries or if it should exercise its general maritime law functions, including adherence to the longstanding principle of special solicitude for the welfare of sailors, a question Justice Kavanaugh observed during arguments.
The Impact of the Supreme Court’s Decision
The impact of the Supreme Court’s decision was one of the many sources of conflict in briefing and at oral argument, with counsel for respondent, Batteron, arguing that punitive damages have value as a deterrent to ship-owners and have been awarded in the Ninth and Eleventh Circuits with no ill effects to the shipping industry, while many amicus briefs suggested that allowing punitive damages in an unseaworthiness claim would harm the maritime industry and national economy.