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Dutra Group v. Batterton

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 2019


          Argued March 25, 2019


         Respondent Christopher Batterton was working on a vessel owned by petitioner Dutra Group when a hatch blew open and injured his hand. Batterton sued Dutra, asserting a variety of claims, including unseaworthiness, and seeking general and punitive damages. Dutra moved to dismiss the claim for punitive damages, arguing that they are not available on claims for unseaworthiness. The District Court denied Dutra's motion, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

         Held: A plaintiff may not recover punitive damages on a claim of unseaworthiness. Pp. 10-19.

(a)This case is governed by Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, and Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404. Miles establishes that the Court "should look primarily to . . . legislative enactments for policy guidance" when exercising its inherent common-law authority over maritime and admiralty cases, while recognizing that such statutory remedies may be supplemented to "achieve the uniform vindication" of the policies served by the relevant statutes. 498 U.S., at 27. And in Atlantic Sounding, the Court allowed recovery of punitive damages but justified that departure from the statutory remedial scheme based on the established history of awarding punitive damages for certain maritime torts, including maintenance and cure. 557 U.S., at 413-414. P. 10.
(b)The overwhelming historical evidence suggests that punitive damages are not available for unseaworthiness claims. Neither The Rolf, 293 F. 269, nor The Noddleburn, 28 F. 855-o');">28 F. 855-on which Batterton relies-contains a relevant discussion of exemplary or punitive damages. And two other cases to which Batterton points-The City of Carlisle, 39 F. 807, and The Troop, 118 F. 769-both involve maintenance and cure, not unseaworthiness, claims. The lack of punitive damages in traditional maritime law cases is practically dispositive. Pp. 11-13.
(c)This Court cannot sanction a novel remedy here unless it is required to maintain uniformity with Congress's clearly expressed policies, particularly those in the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Jones Act)-which codified the rights of injured mariners by incorporating the rights provided to railway workers under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA). Early decisions held that FELA damages were strictly compensatory. See, e.g., American R. Co. of P. R. v. Didrick-sen, 227 U.S. 145, 149. And the Federal Courts of Appeals have unanimously held that punitive damages are not available under FELA. This Court's early discussions of the Jones Act followed the same practices, see, e.g., Pacific S. S. Co. v. Peterson, 278 U.S. 130, 135, and lower courts have uniformly held that punitive damages are not available under the Jones Act. Adopting Batterton's rule would be contrary to Miles's command that federal courts should seek to promote a "uniform rule applicable to all actions" for the same injury, whether under the Jones Act or the general maritime law. 498 U.S., at 33. Pp. 13-15.
(d) Batterton argues that punitive damages are justified on policy grounds or as a regulatory measure. But unseaworthiness in its current strict-liability form is this Court's own invention and came after passage of the Jones Act, and a claim of unseaworthiness serves as a duplicate and substitute for a Jones Act claim. It would, therefore, exceed the Court's objectives of pursuing policies found in congressional enactments and promoting uniformity between maritime statutory law and maritime common law to introduce novel remedies contradictory to those provided by Congress in similar areas. Allowing punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims would also create bizarre disparities in the law. First, due to Miles's holding, which limited recovery to compensatory damages in wrongful-death actions, 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 punitive damages 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. Finally, allowing punitive damages would place American shippers at a significant competitive disadvantage and discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen. The maritime doctrine mentioned by Batterton, which encourages special solicitude for the welfare of seamen, has its roots in the paternalistic approach taken toward mariners by 19th century courts and has never been a commandment that maritime law must favor seamen whenever possible. Pp. 15-18. 880 F.3d 1089, reversed and remanded.

          ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and Thomas, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, JJ., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BREYER and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined.



         By granting federal courts jurisdiction over maritime and admiralty cases, the Constitution implicitly directs federal courts sitting in admiralty to proceed "in the manner of a common law court." Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 489-490 (2008). Thus, where Congress has not prescribed specific rules, federal courts must develop the "amalgam of traditional common-law rules, modifications of those rules, and newly created rules" that forms the general maritime law. East River S. S. Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 864-865 (1986). But maritime law is no longer solely the province of the Federal Judiciary. "Congress and the States have legislated extensively in these areas." Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 27 (1990). When exercising its inherent common-law authority, "an admiralty court should look primarily to these legislative enactments for policy guidance." Ibid. We may depart from the policies found in the statutory scheme in discrete instances based on long-established history, see, e.g., Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 424-425 (2009), but we do so cautiously in light of Congress's persistent pursuit of "uniformity in the exercise of admiralty jurisdiction." Miles, supra, at 26 (quoting Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375, 401 (1970)).

         This case asks whether a mariner may recover punitive damages on a claim that he was injured as a result of the unseaworthy condition of the vessel. We have twice confronted similar questions in the past several decades, and our holdings in both cases were based on the particular claims involved. In Miles, which concerned a wrongful-death claim under the general maritime law, we held that recovery was limited to pecuniary damages, which did not include loss of society. 498 U.S., at 23. And in Atlantic Sounding, after examining centuries of relevant case law, we held that punitive damages are not categorically barred as part of the award on the traditional maritime claim of maintenance and cure. 557 U.S., at 407. Here, because there is no historical basis for allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness actions, and in order to promote uniformity with the way courts have applied parallel statutory causes of action, we hold that punitive damages remain unavailable in unseaworthiness actions.


         In order to determine the remedies for unseaworthiness, we must consider both the heritage of the cause of action in the common law and its place in the modern statutory framework.


         The seaman's right to recover damages for personal injury on a claim of unseaworthiness originates in the admiralty court decisions of the 19th century. At the time, "seamen led miserable lives." D. Robertson, S. Friedell, & M. Sturley, Admiralty and Maritime Law in the United States 163 (2d ed. 2008). Maritime law was largely judge- made, and seamen were viewed as "emphatically the wards of the admiralty." Harden v. Gordon, 11 F. Cas. 480, 485 (No. 6, 047) (CC Me. 1823). In that era, the primary responsibility for protecting seamen lay in the courts, which saw mariners as "peculiarly entitled to"- and particularly in need of-judicial protection "against the effects of the superior skill and shrewdness of masters and owners of ships." Brown v. Lull, 4 F. Cas. 407, 409 (No. 2, 018) (CC Mass. 1836) (Story, J.).[1]

         Courts of admiralty saw it as their duty not to be "confined to the mere dry and positive rules of the common law" but to "act upon the enlarged and liberal jurisprudence of courts of equity; and, in short, so far as their powers extend[ed], they act[ed] as courts of equity." Ibid. This Court interpreted the Constitution's grant of admiralty jurisdiction to the Federal Judiciary as "the power to . . . dispose of [a case] as justice may require." The Resolute, 168 U.S. 437, 439 (1897).

         Courts used this power to protect seamen from injury primarily through two causes of action. The first, maintenance and cure, has its roots in the medieval and renaissance law codes that form the ancient foundation of maritime common law.[2] The duty of maintenance and cure requires a ship's master "to provide food, lodging, and medical services to a seaman injured while serving the ship." Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc., 531 U.S. 438, 441 (2001). This duty, "which arises from the contract of employment, does not rest upon negligence or culpability on the part of the owner or master, nor is it restricted to those cases where the seaman's employment is the cause of the injury or illness." Calmar S. S. Corp. v. Taylor, 303 U.S. 525, 527 (1938) (citations omitted).

         The second claim, unseaworthiness, is a much more recent development and grew out of causes of action unrelated to personal injury. In its earliest forms, an unseaworthiness claim gave sailors under contract to sail on a ship the right to collect their wages even if they had refused to board an unsafe vessel after discovering its condition. See, e.g., Dixon v. The Cyrus, 7 F. Cas. 755, 757 (No. 3, 930) (Pa. 1789); Rice v. The Polly & Kitty, 20 F. Cas. 666, 667 (No. 11, 754) (Pa. 1789). Similarly, unseaworthiness was a defense to criminal charges against seamen who refused to obey a ship master's orders. See, e.g., United States v. Nye, 27 F. Cas. 210, 211 (No. 15, 906) (CC Mass. 1855); United States v. Ashton, 24 F. Cas. 873, 874-875 (No. 14, 470) (CCMass. 1834). A claim of unseaworthiness could also be asserted by a shipper to recover damages or by an insurer to deny coverage when the poor condition of the ship resulted in damage to or loss of the cargo. See The Caledonia, 157 U.S. 124, 132-136 (1895) (cataloging cases).

         Only in the latter years of the 19th century did unseaworthiness begin a long and gradual evolution toward remedying personal injury. Courts began to extend the cases about refusals to serve to allow recovery for mariners who were injured because of the unseaworthy condition of the vessel on which they had served.[3] These early cases were sparse, and they generally allowed recovery only when a vessel's owner failed to exercise due diligence to ensure that the ship left port in a seaworthy condition. See, e.g., The Robert C. McQuillen, 91 F. 685, 686-687 (Conn. 1899); The Lizzie Frank, 31 F. 477, 480 (SD Ala. 1887); The Tammerlane, Al F. 822, 824 (ND Cal. 1891).

         Unseaworthiness remained a suspect basis for personal injury claims until 1903, when, in dicta, this Court concluded that "the vessel and her owner are . . . liable to an indemnity for injuries received by seamen in consequence of the unseaworthiness of the ship." The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158, 175 (1903). Although this was the first recognition of unseaworthiness as a personal injury claim in this Court, we took pains to note that the claim was strictly cabined. Ibid. Some of the limitations on recovery were imported from the common law. The fellow-servant doctrine, in particular, prohibited recovery when an employee suffered an injury due to the negligent act of another employee without negligence on the part of the employer. Ibid.; see, e.g., The Sachem, 42 F. 66 (EDNY 1890) (deny- ing recovery based on fellow-servant doctrine). Because a claimant had to show that he was injured by some aspect of the ship's condition that rendered the vessel unseawor-thy, a claim could not prevail based on "the negligence of the master, or any member of the crew."[4] The Osceola, supra, at 175; see also The City of Alexandria, 17 F. 390 (SDNY 1883) (no recovery based on negligence that does not render vessel unseaworthy). Instead, a seaman had to show that the owner of the vessel had failed to exercise due diligence in ensuring the ship was in seaworthy condition. See generally Dixon v. United States, 219 F.2d 10, 12-14 (CA2 1955) (Harlan, J.) (cataloging evolution of the claim).


         In the early 20th century, then, under "the general maritime law ... a vessel and her owner . . . were liable to an indemnity for injuries received by a seaman in consequence of the unseaworthiness of the ship and her appliances; but a seaman was not allowed to recover an indemnity for injuries sustained through the negligence of the master or any member of the crew." Pacific S. S. Co. v. Peterson, 278 U.S. 130, 134 (1928); see also Plamals v. S. S. "Pinar Del Rio," 211 U.S. 151, 155 (1928) (vessel was not unseaworthy when mate negligently selected defective rope but sound rope was available on board). Because of these severe limitations on recovery, "the seaman's right to recover damages for injuries caused by unseaworthiness of the ship was an obscure and relatively little used remedy." G. Gilmore & C. Black, The Law of Admiralty §6-38, p. 383 (2d ed. 1975) (Gilmore & Black).

         Tremendous shifts in mariners' rights took place between 1920 and 1950. First, during and after the First World War, Congress enacted a series of laws regulating maritime liability culminating in the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, §33, 41 Stat. 1007 (Jones Act), which codified the rights of injured mariners and created new statutory claims that were freed from many of the common-law limitations on recovery. The Jones Act provides injured seamen with a cause of action and a right to a jury. 46 U.S.C. §30104. Rather than create a new structure of substantive rights, the Jones Act incorporated the rights provided to railway workers under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. §51 et seq. 46 U.S.C. §30104. In the 30 years after the Jones Act's passage, "the Act was the vehicle for almost all seamen's personal injury and death actions." Gilmore & Black §6-20, at 327.

         But the Jones Act was overtaken in the 1950s by the second fundamental change in personal injury maritime claims-and it was this Court, not Congress, that played the leading role. In a pair of decisions in the late 1940s, the Court transformed the old claim of unseaworthiness, which had demanded only due diligence by the vessel owner, into a strict-liability claim. In Mahnich v. Southern S. S. Co., 321 U.S. 96 (1944), the Court stated that "the exercise of due diligence does not relieve the owner of his obligation" to provide a seaworthy ship and, in the same ruling, held that the fellow-servant doctrine did not provide a defense. Id., at 100, 101. Mahnictis interpretation of the early cases may have been suspect, see Tetreault 397-398 (Mahnich rests on "startling misstatement" of relevant precedents), but its assertion triggered a sea-change in maritime personal injury. Less than two years later, we affirmed that the duty of seaworthiness was "essentially a species of liability without fault . . . neither limited by conceptions of negligence nor contractual in character. It is a form of absolute duty owing to all within the range of its humanitarian policy." Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 94-95 (1946) (citations omitted). From Mahnich forward, "the decisions of this Court have undeviatingly reflected an understanding that the owner's duty to furnish a seaworthy ship is absolute and completely independent of his duty under the Jones Act to exercise reasonable care." Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539, 549 (1960). As a result of Mahnich and Sieracki, between the 1950s and 1970s "the unseaworthiness count [was] the essential basis for recovery with the Jones Act count preserved merely as a jury-getting device."[5] Gilmore & Black §6-20, at 327-328.

         The shifts in plaintiff preferences between Jones Act and unseaworthiness claims were possible because of the significant overlap between the two causes of action. See id., §6-38, at 383. One leading treatise goes so far as to describe the two claims as "alternative 'grounds' of recovery for a single cause of action." 2 R. Force & M. Norris, The Law of Seamen §30:90, p. 30-369 (5th ed. 2003). The two claims are so similar that, immediately after the Jones Act's passage, we held that plaintiffs could not submit both to a jury. Plamals, supra, at 156-157 ("Seamen may invoke, at their election, the relief accorded by the old rules against the ship, or that provided by the new against the employer. But they may not have the benefit of both"). We no longer require such election. See McAllister v. Magnolia Petroleum Co., 357 U.S. 221, 222, n. 2 (1958). But a plaintiff still cannot duplicate his recovery by collecting full damages on both claims because, "whether or not the seaman's injuries were occasioned by the unseaworthiness of the vessel or by the negligence of the master or members of the crew, . . . there is but a single wrongful invasion of his primary right of bodily safety and but a single legal wrong." Peterson, 278 U.S., at 138; see also 2 Force, supra, §§26:73, 30:90.


         Christopher Batterton worked as a deckhand and crew member on vessels owned and operated by the Dutra Group. According to Batterton's complaint, while working on a scow near Newport Beach, California, Batterton was injured when his hand was caught between a bulkhead and a hatch that blew open as a result of unventilated air accumulating and pressurizing within the compartment.

         Batterton sued Dutra and asserted a variety of claims, including negligence, unseaworthiness, maintenance and cure, and unearned wages. He sought to recover general and punitive damages. Dutra moved to strike Batterton's claim for punitive damages, arguing that they are not available on claims for unseaworthiness. The District Court denied Dutra's motion, 2014 WL 12538172 (CD CaL, Dec. 15, 2014), but agreed to certify an interlocutory appeal on the question, 2015 WL 13752889 (CD CaL, Feb. 6, 2015).

         The Court of Appeals affirmed. 880 F.3d 1089 (CA9 2018). Applying Circuit precedent, see Evich v. Morris, 819 F.2d 256, 258-259 (CA9 1987), the Court of Appeals held that punitive damages are available for unseaworthiness claims. 880 F.3d, at 1096. This holding reaffirmed a division of authority between the Circuits. Compare McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L. L. C,768 F.3d 382, 391 (CA5 2014) (en banc) (punitive damages are not recoverable), and Horsley v. Mobil Oil Corp.,15 F.3d 200, 203 (CA11994) (same), with Self v. Great Lakes Dredge &Dock Co.,832 F.2d 1540, 1550 (CA111987) ("Punitive damages should be available in cases where the ...

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