U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Jones Act Seaman’s Bid for Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Suit

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The U.S. Supreme Court has resolved split circuit court decision sin the personal injury case of Dutra Group v. Batterton, ruling that an injured Jones Act seaman cannot recover punitive damages on a common-law maritime claim of unseaworthiness.

In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court rejected deckhand Christopher Batterton’s bid to lodge a claim for punitive damages in a lawsuit alleging the Dutra Group-owned and operated vessel he was working on lacked a particular exhaust mechanism that caused a hatch cover to blow open, crushing Batterton’s hand.

Batterton’s lawsuit sought to recover punitive damages based on Dutra’s alleged breach of its general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.

The ruling in favor of the Dutra Group holds that a plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a maritime claim of unseaworthiness. 

Justice Samuel Alito delivered the majority opinion, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

‚ÄúThis ruling is a favorable one for vessel owners who may not have been able to obtain insurance for the unseaworthy risk given that many policies exclude punitive damages from coverage,” said Jeff Tillery, a New Orleans-based maritime attorney at Jones Walker LLP. “It should also avoid the risk that a vessel owner gets hit with punitive damages for an unsafe condition on their vessel that may have existed for a long time of which they were not aware.” 

The case is one of only a handful of maritime cases to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years.