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On March 25, 2019, the Supreme Court heard argument in The Dutra Group v. Batterton, a case considering whether punitive damages may be awarded in a general maritime action for unseaworthiness.  

Christopher Batterton was a deckhand on a ship owned by the Dutra Group. In the course of Batterton's work, a hatch cover that covered a compartment storing pressurized air blew open and crushed Batterton’s left hand. The hatch cover allegedly blew because of the ship's lack of a mechanism for exhausting over-pressurized air. Batterton was permanently disabled because of the injury. He brought suit against Dutra Group in federal district court in California, seeking (among other things) punitive damages for unseaworthiness.

Dutra Group moved to dismiss the claim for punitive damages, arguing that although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had allowed such damages in its 1987 decision Evich v. Morris, that precedent had been implicitly overruled by the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp, which held that the parent of a deceased seaman could not recover loss of society damages in a general maritime action. The district court denied the motion and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, concluding that punitive damages differed materially from loss of society damages, and that, under the Jones Act, Evich remained good law: punitive damages are awardable to seamen for their own injuries in general maritime unseaworthiness actions.

That ruling, however, put the Ninth Circuit in direct conflict with a contrary ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on the same issue, and the Supreme Court subsequently granted certiorari to address whether punitive damages may be awarded to a Jones Act seaman in a personal-injury suit alleging a breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel.

To the discuss the case, we have Daryl Joseffer, Senior Vice President and Chief Counsel for Appellate Litigation at the U.S. Chamber Litigation Center.