What Are Punitive Damages and When Do I Get Them?


  Punitive damages take an important part among all of the different recoverable damages available to seamen. You may have heard the term before, but what does it mean, and are those damages available to seamen? Discover all the details in our short overview.

Punitive Damages Defined

In maritime personal injury cases, a seaman may recover punitive damages on top of the actual damages under certain circumstances. They serve two main purposes:

  1. To  punish a tortfeasor or wrongdoer for extreme or outrageous behavior, and
  2. deter the individual tortfeasor and other potential tortfeasors from similar conduct.

The courts have grappled with the issue of whether or not punitive damages are available to seamen, and their decisions have been contradictory.

Punitive Damages Availability in Personal Injury Claims

In 2009, the United States Supreme Court decided a case called Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend and held that punitive damages are recoverable for seamen for the arbitrary and capricious failure to pay maintenance and cure benefits.

But are punitive damages available for a seaman’s claim for vessel unseaworthiness? The question arose following the Atlantic Sounding case and there was a split among the federal appellate courts. The Fifth Circuit prohibited punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims, but the Ninth Circuit later rejected the Fifth Circuit’s opinion and allowed seamen to recover those damages.  

Then, in 2019 the United States Supreme Court resolved the split in authority and sided with the Fifth Circuit in a case called Batterton v. Dutra Group.

As the law stands currently, seamen are only entitled to recover punitive damages in the context of maintenance and cure claims and cannot recover punitive damages for vessel unseaworthiness or under the Jones Act.

We have previously discussed that a seaman can sue his or her employer in case of an accident. But they can also hold other parties involved responsible. Discover more about negligence suits against non-employer third parties.