On Thursday, June 25th, the United States Supreme Court decided a case styled Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. et al. v Edgar L. Townsend 2009 WL 1789469 (U.S. June 25, 2009). This case marked the Supreme Court’s decision to protect a seaman’s right to receive damages for an employers’ willful and wanton disregard of a maintenance and cure obligation.
Petitioners allegedly refused to pay maintenance and cure to respondent Townsend for injuries he suffered while working on its tugboat. Townsend filed suit under the Jones Act and general maritime law, alleging arbitrary and willful failure to provide maintenance and cure. He filed similar counterclaims in the declaratory judgment action, seeking punitive damages for the maintenance and cure claim.
The District Court denied petitioners’ motion to dismiss the punitive damages claim, but certified the question for interlocutory appeal. Following its precedent, the Eleventh Circuit held that punitive damages may be awarded for the willful withholding of maintenance and cure.
At issue in the Townsend case was whether an injured seaman may recover punitive damages for his employer’s willful failure to pay maintenance and cure.
Central to resolving this case were three settled legal principles. First, punitive damages have long been available at common law. Second, the common-law tradition of punitive damages extends to maritime claims. And third, there is no evidence that claims for maintenance and cure were excluded from this general admiralty rule.
The general rule that punitive damages are available at common law extends to claims arising under federal maritime law. The Supreme Court relied upon a previously decided case, i.e., Lake Shore & Michigan Southern R. Co. v Prentice, (147 U.S. 101) in making the above statement. The Prentice court held that courts of admiralty are to proceed upon the same principles as courts of common law, in allowing exemplary damages.
The only statute that could have served as a basis for overturning the common-law rule was the Jones Act. However, the plain language of the Jones Act does not provide a basis for overturning the common-law rule. The Townsend court’s previous decisions have repeatedly observed that the Jones Act preserves common-law causes of action such as maintenance and cure, and supports the view that punitive damages awards remain available in maintenance and cure actions after the Act’s passage.
Punitive damages have long been a remedy available at common law for wanton, willful, or outrageous conduct. The common-law punitive damages tradition extends to claims arising under federal maritime law.
The petitioner, Atlantic Sounding Co., cited Miles v Apex Marine Corp. (498 U.S. 19) in their argument. The Townsend court held that Miles did not limit recovery to the remedies available under the Jones Act. The Townsend court further held that Miles did not address either maintenance and cure actions in general or the availability of punitive damages for such actions. The case grappled with the question of whether general maritime law should provide a cause of action for wrongful death based on unseaworthiness. This case was not dealing with the availability of remedies for wrongful-death actions brought under general maritime law. Thus, the reasoning in Miles did not apply here.
The Townsend court held that the quest for uniformity in admiralty law does not require narrowing available damages to the lowest common denominator approved by Congress for distinct causes of action.
The Townsend dissent failed to acknowledge that the general common-law rule made punitive damages available in maritime actions. The dissent never explained why maintenance and cure actions should be excepted from this general rule. The fact that they want to limit recovery for maintenance and cure to whatever is permitted by the Jones Act would give greater pre-emptive effect to the Act than is required by its text, Miles, or any other court decisions.
The majority opinion in Townsend noted that punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law. Further, nothing in the Jones Act altered this understanding. Thus, damages for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation should remain available in this case as a matter of general maritime law. The Townsend court affirms the judgment of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Townsend opinion leaves the reader satisfied, knowing the Supreme Court continues to look out for seamen and their rights under general maritime law.