Punitive Damages Available to Seamen for Failure to Provide Maintenance and Cure

The right to maintenance and cure for seaman has been recognized in our country for centuries. It is one of the oldest obligations a ship owner has to their crewmembers. Maintenance and cure can be described succinctly as medical expenses, living allowance and unearned wages owed to a seaman who suffers an injury or illness while in the service of the vessel.

Ship owners (employers) have argued that seamen cannot recover punitive damages for the willful, arbitrary and capricious failure to live up to their maintenance and cure obligations. The issue was somewhat unsettled until fairly recently when the Supreme Court of the United States decided, in the case of Atlantic Sounding Co., v. Townsend, 129 S. Ct. 2561 (2009) , that punitive damages are available to a seaman for the willful, arbitrary and capricious failure to provide maintenance and cure. Townsend resolved a conflict among the circuits regarding the issue.

The Supreme Court of the United States recognized that the legal obligation to provide maintenance and cure dates back centuries as an element of general maritime law, and that punitive damages for the failure to provide a seaman without adequate medical care and treatment was recognized in the early 1800’s.

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The Supreme Court of the United States recognized punitive damages have historically been available at common law. Also, that this common law tradition of awarding punitive damages applied to maritime cases. Lastly, the Supreme Court of the United States concluded there were no legal barriers to a claim for punitive damages for failure to provide maintenance and cure. Instead the general admiralty rule recognizing punitive damages was applicable. As such, the seaman does in fact have a right to seek punitive damages for the willful, arbitrary and capricious failure to provide maintenance and cure.

This weapon given to the seamen is critical to all seamen. It is a method of enforcing their rights to maintenance and cure. It is a method to punish owners / employers who do not comply with this critical obligation. The failure to provide maintenance and cure leaves seamen without proper means to obtain necessary medical care and treatment. If the claim was limited to purely compensatory damages, the ship owner / employer would have less incentive to comply with their maintenance and cure obligations as the compensatory damages are sometimes very little compared to the actual damages suffered. Punitive damages is a method to punish and to deter willful, arbitrary and capricious conduct on the part of the ship owners / employers.

Under Florida law, a claim for punitive damages cannot be pled in the original Complaint filed in State Court. The Plaintiff must seek leave to amend the Complaint to add a claim for punitive damages, proffering to the Court the facts which would support an award of punitive damages. The Court must then consider the proffer and determine if there is a basis for the award of punitive damages before allowing the amendment to the Complaint to add claims for punitive damages. Punitive damages can be justified on the basis of laxness of investigation on the part of a ship owner when a seaman does claim a right to maintenance and cure.

Having resolved the conflict among the circuits regarding the availability of punitive damages for seamen in maintenance and cure actions, this critical weapon on behalf of the seamen must be utilized in the appropriate cases in order to fulfill the purposes of punishment and deterrence.

Our personal injury and wrongful death firm continues to be safety advocates for both crewmembers and passengers who are harmed at sea.

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