American seamen have three avenues of recovery against a shipowner in respect of injuries sustained on board a ship: maintenance and cure; the Jones Act; a claim of unseaworthiness.
Punitive damages are available for the first of these, but not the second. The position as regards unseaworthiness was, until recently, unclear with a Circuit split on the issue. This has now been resolved by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dutra Group v Batterton ,588- U.S.. ____ (2019) , to the effect that punitive damages are not recoverable. The overwhelming historical evidence was against such damages being available in an action for unseaworthiness. A novel remedy could not be sanctioned unless it is required to maintain uniformity with Congress’s clearly expressed policies, particularly those in the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act), under which only compensatory damages were recoverable.
To allow punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims would create bizarre disparities in the law. First, a mariner could make a claim for punitive damages if he was injured onboard a ship, but his estate would lose the right to seek punitivedamages in a wrongful death action if he died from his injuries. Second, because unseaworthiness claims run against the owner of the vessel, the owner could be liable for punitive damages while the ship’s master or operator—who could be more culpable—would not be liable for such damages under the Jones Act. Third, allowing punitive damages would place American shippers at a significant competitive disadvantage and discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen