The Supreme Court of the United States has concluded that a seaman may not recover punitive damages for an unseaworthy condition on a vessel regardless of how egregious the conduct of the ship owner was in creating the condition.
In a crushing blow to the rights of seaman injured while working on a vessel, and to the family members of any seamen killed on a vessel, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to protect the interests of shipowners who often force seamen to work in in dangerous conditions despite their obligation to provide a safe work environment and seaworthy vessel.
The issue before the United States Supreme Court was whether a seaman could recover punitive damages for an unseaworthy condition on a vessel that caused an injury or death in circumstances where the conduct of the ship owner in creating the unseaworthy condition was egregious. In other words, this implies some type of intentional wrongdoing or willful and wanton disregard for the safety of the crew. Punitive damages have historically been a very important tool to help motivate shipowners to exercise the appropriate due diligence in maintaining their vessels in a safe condition, and not jeopardizing the lives and safety of the crew who are working at sea under arduous conditions. Punitive damages are designed to deter specific types of egregious conduct by the threat of being liable for large sums of money, and also to punish an individual or corporation whose conduct is egregious enough to justify some type of monetary punishment to deter future wrongdoing, and to set an example to the rest of the industry.
The Supreme Court of the United States overturned the appellate court ruling that determined a seaman could in fact recover punitive damages under certain circumstances against the ship owner where an unseaworthy condition caused an injury or death. The Supreme Court of the United States held that punitive damages are unavailable to a seaman for either his or her Jones Act negligence claim pursuing to Congressional statutes, or pursuant to the doctrine of unseaworthiness under the general maritime law of the United States.
The decision allows shipowners all over the world who are subjected to American law to walk away from a case where an unseaworthy condition has caused injury or death, and where the evidence shows the ship owner acted egregiously, willfully, wantonly and in reckless disregard of the lives and safety of the crew. The ship owner will never have to be accountable to pay punitive damages, the type of damages under our law designed to deter this type of conduct and to punish a shipowner whose egregious conduct causes injury or death. This is a powerful and necessary weapon in our system of justice, and we are saddened by the reasoning of the Supreme Court of the United States in denying seamen, who need this type of protective action more than most of their employers, this powerful weapon designed to deter the egregious conduct in the first place.
We continue to act as advocates for both passengers and crew members who suffer injuries at sea, and to represent family members who have lost loved ones at sea.