Ninth Circuit Diverges from Fifth on the Availability of Punitive Damages for Personal Injury of a Seaman in Unseaworthiness Claims – Creates Circuit Split

Ninth Circuit Diverges from Fifth on the Availability of Punitive Damages for Personal Injury of a Seaman in Unseaworthiness Claims – Creates Circuit Split

Summary by Tyler Loga

Christopher Batterton v. Dutra Group, No. 15-56775, D.C. No. 2:14-cv-07887-PJW, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 1627, WL 505256 (9th Cir. Jan. 23, 2018).

Background

The plaintiff, Christopher Batterton was a deckhand on a vessel in navigable waters (presumably inland) owned and operated by the defendant, Dutra Group. Batterton suffered a hand injury and subsequently sued Dutra for unseaworthiness in United States District Court for the Central District of California. Dutra filed motion to strike the portion of the complaint seeking punitive damages for unseaworthiness, which was denied. Dutra appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  The district court certified an interlocutory appeal (28 U.S.C. Sec. 1292[b]), which was granted by the Ninth Circuit.

The sole issue before the court was whether punitive damages are an available remedy for unseaworthiness personal injury claims.

Analysis

Dutra, the defendant, relied on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in McBride v Estis Well Service [1] which holds that, “’punitive damages are non-pecuniary losses’ and therefore may not be recovered under the Jones Act or general maritime law.”

Dutra further argued that Evich v. Morris [2] is implicitly overturned by Miles v. Apex Marine Corp [3]. In the Miles court’s discussion of damages, the Supreme Court stated that the Death on the High Seas Act limits the availability of damages due to wrongful death to “pecuniary loss sustained by the persons for whose benefit the suit is brought.”

Similarly, Dutra maintained that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of FELA in Michigan C. R. Co. v. Vreeland [4] limits recovery under that Act to pecuniary losses, and because the Jones Act adopts FELA “lock, stock and barrel,” recovery of non-pecuniary losses such as loss of society and punitive damages in a general maritime action for the wrongful death of a Jones Act seaman should be barred as well.

The Ninth Circuit agrees that punitive damages are non-pecuniary, and cannot be recovered under the Jones Act, but diverges from the Fifth Circuit on claims based on general maritime law.[5]

The Ninth Circuit starts by stating that the issue of availability of punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases was already decided in Evich. In that case, the Ninth Circuit plainly held, “[p]unitive damages are available under general maritime law for claims of unseaworthiness, and for failure to pay maintenance and cure.” The standard for recovery of punitive damages is, “conduct which manifests ‘reckless or callous disregard’ for the rights of others . . . or ‘gross negligence or actual malice [or] criminal indifference.” This is distinguished from Jones act claims in which punitive damages are not recoverable.

While Evich involved the death of a seaman and the present case involves a personal injury, not death, the court states that based on other Ninth Circuit precedent, the panel could not overrule the prior precedent of Evich unless that precedent is “clearly irreconcilable” with Miles.

The Ninth Circuit narrowly interpreted the Supreme Court’s holding in Miles that loss of society damages are unavailable in a general maritime action for the wrongful death of a seaman because damages are limited to “pecuniary losses.” Miles also held that loss of future earnings are unavailable in a general maritime survival action because damages are limited by the Jones Act to “losses suffered in the defendant’s lifetime.” The Ninth Circuit panel declined to expand this reading to include claims under general maritime law.

It justifies its narrow reading of Miles on the Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend [6], and thereby interprets Townsend to also hold, “that Miles [and the Jones Act] do not limit the availability of other remedies in actions ‘under general maritime law,’ which includes unseaworthiness claims.”

The panel also reasoned that there is no apparent support why barring recovery of loss of society should also bar recovery of punitive damages. The court noted that while Miles discusses pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages, it is silent on punitive damages.  The court notes that Miles states that the Jones Act, “evinces no general hostility to recovery under maritime law” and “does not disturb the seaman’s general maritime claims for injuries resulting from unseaworthiness.”

Conclusion

For these reasons, the Ninth Circuit panel unanimously held that Miles does not overrule Evich, as it is not fundamentally inconsistent with the reasoning of Evich, and affirmed the decision of the district court to deny Dutra’s motion to strike the prayer for punitive damages. The court determined that punitive damages are awardable to seaman for their own injuries in general maritime unseaworthiness actions.

[1] McBride v Estis Well Service, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014)(en banc).

[2] Evich v. Morris, 819 F.2d 256, 258 (9th Cir. 1987).

[3] Miles v. Apex Marine Corp, 498 U.S. 19 (1990).

[4] Michigan C. R. Co. v. Vreeland, 227 U.S. 58 (1913).

[5] Kopczynski v. The Jaqueline, 742 F.2d 555, 561 (9th Cir. 1984).

[6] Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009).