New Ruling Poses Challenges to Mariners Injured on the Job

In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court passed a ruling that will affect the claims of maritime workers in personal injury and wrongful death actions. While the new ruling has created a split in the law as to the type of damages people injured or who died on the water can recover depending whether they are a maritime worker or passengers, it’s important to understand what it means for you and your family. Read on to learn more about the ruling and what you can do if you find yourself victim to a maritime personal injury on the job.

The Ruling
Christopher Batterton was a maritime professional who lost the use of his hand when a hatch burst open in a pressurized cabin. He sued the shipowner for punitive damages pursuant to a claim under general maritime law for unseaworthiness. Punitive damages are typically sought when a company’s conduct is extremely willful, wanton or reckless. An award or threat of an award of punitive damages are known to cause companies to change the conduct and correct conduct to prevent future injuries.

The issue before the United States Supreme Court was whether a merchant seaman can recover punitive damages under general maritime law against a shipowner for grossly, willful wanton unseaworthiness.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that because Batterton was a mariner he had no right to sue for punitive damages pursuant to unseaworthiness. The Supreme Court decision was based on the holding that there is no historical basis for allowing punitive damage award for unseaworthiness and that since punitive damages were not awarded to merchant seaman under Jones Act negligence, the damages should not be recoverable under unseaworthiness as it would create disparities in parallel causes of actions.

Not only did the case do away the remedy of punitive damages under unseaworthiness, but the Supreme Court in dicta cast light on an old Supreme Court holding that seaman are also “wards of the admiralty court.” Justice Alito wrote “the special solitude to sailors has only a small role to play in contemporary maritime law,” and decided that modern mariners no longer have the need for special protections, as the law was meant primarily for 19th-century mariners who faced different hardships.

Challenges the New Ruling Presents
In an article by the Cape Cod Times, maritime attorney Carolyn M. Latti of Latti & Anderson LLP cited how the new ruling will affect other mariners’ cases negatively. As a long-time advocate of those injured working on fishing boats, tugs and barges, tankers and other vessels, Latti knows firsthand how this ruling can threaten the justice for maritime professionals in the future.

Latti outlined the challenges this new ruling will pose for mariners seeking restitution for their personal injuries, including:

The inability to sue for punitive damages
Although punitive damages can be awarded to passengers, maritime workers are now barred from pursuing punitive damages in a claim for unseaworthiness under general maritime law. Latti outlined how if a passenger and worker are injured in the same accident, only the passenger or recreational boater will be entitled to punitive damages under general maritime law for negligence. This deepens the dichotomy between the two groups and takes power away from injured maritime workers.

Lack of special protections
Even though deaths and injuries on ships are still prevalent today and the maritime workers’ rights are continuously being compromised and diminished, the court ruled that mariners do not face the same hardships as their predecessors in the 19th century. This dictum may result in a lack of special protection for modern mariners down the road.

Power to the people… of corporations
Because pursuing punitive damages attacks a company’s or corporation’s conduct, punitive damages has the power to change companies’ practices to the benefit of all. Unfortunately, this new ruling allows large corporations to ignore dangerous and unsafe conditions on their vessels to the detriment of the maritime worker.

What You Can Do
The new ruling surrounding mariners’ rights to punitive damages limits a maritime worker’s damages for injuries on the job. However, you can still pursue damages for your maritime personal injury or death of a loved one. With a qualified attorney by your side, the lawyers at Latti & Anderson LLP have represented maritime workers across the nation. Simply call the toll-free number 1-800-392-6072 to find out what they can do for you.