__ U.S. __, 18-266, The Dutra Group v. Batterton

Docket Nº:18-266
Citation:__ U.S. __, 139 S.Ct. 2275, 204 L.Ed.2d 692, 27 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 1050
Opinion Judge:ALITO, Justice.
Party Name:THE DUTRA GROUP, Petitioner v. Christopher BATTERTON
Attorney:Seth P. Waxman, Washington, DC, for Petitioner. David C. Frederick, Washington, DC, for Respondent. Preston Easley, Law Offices of, Preston Easley APC, San Pedro, CA, David C. Frederick, Brendan J. Crimmins, Benjamin S. Softness, Lillian V. Smith, Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, P.L.L.C...
Judge Panel: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. Justice GINSBURG, with whom Justice BREYER and Justice SOTOMAYOR join, dissenting.
Case Date:June 24, 2019
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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__ U.S. __

139 S.Ct. 2275, 204 L.Ed.2d 692, 27 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 1050

THE DUTRA GROUP, Petitioner

v.

Christopher BATTERTON

No. 18-266

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 2019

Argued March 25, 2019

Syllabus

[*]

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. 2282 - 2287.

(a) This case is governed by Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 111 S.Ct. 317, 112 L.Ed.2d 275, and Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 129 S.Ct. 2561, 174 L.Ed.2d 382. 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, 111 S.Ct. 317. 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, 129 S.Ct. 2561. Pp. 2282-2283.

(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— 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. 2283 - 2285.

(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. Didricksen, 227 U.S. 145, 149, 33 S.Ct. 224, 57 L.Ed. 456. 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, 49 S.Ct. 75, 73 L.Ed. 220, 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, 111 S.Ct. 317. Pp. 2284 - 2286.

(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. 2285 - 2286.

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.

[139 S.Ct. 2276] Seth P. Waxman, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

David C. Frederick, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Preston Easley, Law Offices of, Preston Easley APC, San Pedro, CA, David C. Frederick, Brendan J. Crimmins, Benjamin S. Softness, Lillian V. Smith, Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, P.L.L.C., Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Barry W. Ponticello, Renee C. St. Clair, England, Ponticello & St. Clair, San Diego, CA, Seth P. Waxman, Paul R. Q. Wolfson, David M. Lehn, Christopher Asta, Edward Williams, Drew Van Denover, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

OPINION

ALITO, Justice.

[139 S.Ct. 2278] 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, 128 S.Ct. 2605, 171 L.Ed.2d 570 (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, 106 S.Ct. 2295, 90 L.Ed.2d 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, 111 S.Ct. 317, 112 L.Ed.2d 275 (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, 129 S.Ct. 2561, 174 L.Ed.2d 382 (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, 111 S.Ct. 317 (quoting Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375, 401, 90 S.Ct. 1772, 26 L.Ed.2d 339 (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, 111 S.Ct. 317. 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, 129 S.Ct. 2561. 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.

I

In order to determine the remedies for unseaworthiness, we must consider both the heritage of the cause of action in the [139 S.Ct. 2279] common law and its place in the modern statutory framework.

A

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,...

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