Recent Decision Impacts a Seaman’s Rights to Punitive Damages

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The United States Supreme Court decided on June 25th, on a case, Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. et al. v Edgar L. Townsend, in which an employer willfully withheld maintenance and cure payments from the respondent, Edgar Townsend.

Atlantic Sounding Co allegedly refused to provide maintenance and cure payments to Townsend for injuries he had previously suffered while working on the companies’ tugboat. Townsend filed a lawsuit under the Jones Act and Maritime law, claiming arbitrary and willful failure to pay maintenance and cure. Additionally, he filed counterclaims in the declaratory court seeking punitive damages for the refusal to pay maintenance and cure.

Principles Involved

The District Court denied Atlantic Sounding Co’s motion to dismiss the punitive damages claim, and the Eleventh Circuit held that punitive damages may be awarded for an employer’s willful refusal to pay maintenance and cure. 

Central to this case, is whether or not an injured seaman may be awarded punitive damages for an employer’s refusal to pay maintenance and cure. Three settled legal principles are involved:

  1. In Common law, punitive damages have long been available
  2. Common law tradition of punitive damages extends to maritime law
  3. There is nothing that says maintenance and cure claims are excluded from the above rule.

Common Law, Maritime Law and Punitive Damages

As a rule in common law, punitive damages are available for most injury cases. This rule extends to maritime law, based on a previous Supreme Court decision in the case of Lake Shore & Michigan R. Co. v. Prentice, in which the court held that admiralty courts should rely upon the same principles as courts of common law, with regard to exemplary damages.

The Jones Act Preserves Punitive Damages

The one basis upon which the common law rule could be overturned is the Jones Act, however, there is nothing in the language of the Jones Act that could be used to overturn it. Other decisions of the Townsend court have cemented that fact the the Jones Act supports the common law principles awarding punitive damages in for maintenance and cure cases.

The Impact of This Case for Injured Seamen

The key point of this decision, and something that injured seamen should find comfort in, is that the Supreme Court continues to support the rights of seamen when their employer attempts to disregard the very statutes that were put in place to protect the workers on whose backs their business was built.

Gordon & Elias, L.L.P., represents clients in all aspects of personal injury and wrongful death. They are a boutique law firm with a nationwide practice focusing on Jones Act-Admiralty-Maritime Law, and the associated Jones Act Blog. Gordon & Elias, L.L.P., was formed in 2000. Attorneys Steve Gordon and R. Todd Elias bring over 39 years of combined experience to the representation of their clients. The firm has the experience and resources to pursue recovery from large corporate defendants and/or their insurers.


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