Punitive Damages Under Maritime Law

In most personal injury cases, there are two types of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are intended to compensate an injured person for medical bills and other losses caused by a defendant. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are designed to punish those who are responsible for having caused the injury due to negligence or bad judgment. The same rules apply to maritime cases, although punitive damages are typically awarded according to the jurisdiction in which the maritime lawsuit was filed, as well as the judge’s final decision.

Sinking boat

Punitive Damages Explained

Punitive damages, as mentioned earlier, are not the same as compensatory damages. Although compensation is awarded if the plaintiff wins punitive damages, the sole purpose is to hold the negligent person responsible by “punishing” them for their careless and neglectful behavior. The amount in punitive damages that a plaintiff can receive will vary according to the nature of the accident and the events surrounding it. Punitive damages are also a way of discouraging people from acting in negligent ways in the future.

The Evolving Concept of Punitive Damages in Maritime Law

Until 2009, injured seamen were only awarded compensatory damages if they were injured on the job. General maritime law entitled them to receive three types of compensation:

  • Maintenance and cure, which cover living expenses and the costs of medical care for job-related injuries
  • Right to file claims of unseaworthiness
  • Right to sue the employer if the injury was caused by negligence

In maritime personal injury cases, punitive damages were in an on-again, off-again state of legal uncertainty until the Supreme Court ruled on a 2008 case (Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend). In its 2009 decision, the Court pointed out that before Congress passed the Jones Act in 1920, maritime law was full of judicial decisions which allowed punitive damages, especially for injured seamen or passengers.

In the Townsend case, Atlantic Sounding violated general maritime law by refusing to pay Edgar Townsend, a seaman who was injured while working on a ship, for maintenance and cure. Townsend sued and asked the court to award punitive damages, which the defendant objected to by citing a precedent set in a 1990 case (Miles V. Apex Marine Corp.). However, various courts ruled in favor of the injured seamen, including the Supreme Court with its 2009 ruling that general maritime law allowed for punitive damages even if the Jones Act itself did not.

An important legal aspect of the Townsend decision was the Court’s finding that Congress’ wording of the Jones Act did not overturn existing common-law punitive damages. The Jones Act created a statutory negligence lawsuit, but it did not get rid of punitive damages already used in other jurisdictions.

Applying Punitive Damages Under Maritime Law

Although the 2009 Townsend decision established that punitive damages are allowable under general maritime law regardless of the language of the Jones Act, there are no clearly defined rules regarding punitive damages. The Supreme Court decision clarified the issues of punitive damages for maintenance and cure issues, but the unseaworthiness issue remains less clearly defined and open to interpretation by lower courts.

In general, injured seamen can ask a court to hold an employer liable if the defendant deliberately, irresponsibly, and offensively:

  • Doesn’t provide maintenance and cure payments while the injured worker recovers
  • Doesn’t pay the proper amounts owed to the seaman for maintenance and cure
  • Slows or postpones maintenance and cure payments
  • Stops maintenance and cure payments without justification

The Townsend decision of 2009, however, does not clearly address punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims in Jones Act lawsuits. This leaves the matter up to individual judges in different jurisdictions. This means that even if a circuit court in Texas rules that punitive damages may be applied in a case where a seaman was injured as a result of a vessel’s unseaworthiness, a judge in New York may rule against punitive damages in a similar case.

For more information on other damages covered under the Jones Act, see our Compensation Covered Under the Jones Act article.