By: Daniel Grammes, J.D. Candidate, May 2018, St. Thomas University School of Law.

After a recent decision in the Ninth Circuit joins a circuit court split, the U.S. Supreme Court may accept an appeal and resolve the issue of whether seamen are entitled to punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims. Last month the Ninth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals in Batterton v. Dutra Group ruled that seamen could recover punitive damages on unseaworthiness claims.

In Batterton, the plaintiff was a deckhand on a vessel owned and operated by the defendant, Dutra Group. A hatch cover on the vessel blew open, crushing the fisherman’s hand while working on the vessel. Pressurized air below the hatch cover compartment caused the hatch cover to blow open, which was the direct result of the vessel lacking an exhaust mechanism to relieve the pressure when the pressure reached dangerously high levels. Since the vessel lacked an exhaust system, it was deemed unseaworthy. The absence of an exhaust system caused permanent disability to the plaintiff to such a degree he was not able to continue his livelihood, which led him to bring suit against the vessel owner.

Batterton sought punitive damages, which is defined as monetary compensation, in addition to actual damages, awarded to the injured party, and intended to punish the defendant when the defendant’s behavior is found to be especially harmful. The policy behind punitive damages is to encourage employers to provide safe work areas and be diligent in recognizing potential dangers.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision to allow seamen to recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims contradicts the First Circuit Court and the recent Fifth Circuit’s decision in McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C., (2014). However, the Ninth Circuit’s Batterton decision is consistent with Self v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. (1987), an Eleventh Circuit decision allowing seamen to recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims. This circuit court split could influence the Supreme Court of the United Stated to hear the case on appeal and resolve the conflict between the circuit courts. If fishermen and seamen are entitled to seek punitive damages in obvious unseaworthiness claims, then, in theory, it should correlate to employers diligently improving the safety of the vessel in order to avoid the devastating consequences of punitive damages. Fortunately, seamen are entitled to seek punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims brought within the Eleventh Circuit’s jurisdiction (Florida, Georgia, and Alabama) until the U.S. Supreme Court decides to resolve the issue.