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Legal Blog

Appeals Court Rules Punitive Damages Can Be Recovered for Unseaworthiness

According to a recent Federal appeals court case, sailors injured by the unseaworthiness of their vessel may now recover punitive damages. This refers to damages that go beyond compensation of the injured sailor’s losses and that are meant to punish the liable party. However, this legal change does not apply to the Gulf maritime industry where punitive damages will continue to be unavailable in unseaworthiness cases.

The case in question, Batterson v. Dutra Group, was decided by the Ninth Circuit, which covers the Western seaboard of the United States. Texas and Louisiana are under the authority of the Fifth judicial circuit whose case Bride v. Estis Well Service dictates that no punitive damages may be awarded in unworthiness disputes. The Supreme Court may soon have to decide the issue of punitive damages for good by addressing the inconsistency between the Fifth and Ninth Circuits.

To speak with a skilled maritime injury lawyer about unseaworthiness, contact The Krist Law Firm, P.C. today at (281) 283-8500 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

What Is Unswearthiness?

Injured sailors may sue the owner of a vessel for unseaworthiness if any of the hazards listed below caused their injury:

  • Unsafe procedures
  • Lack of safety equipment
  • Sparse or competent crew
  • Unreasonable workload
  • Equipment failure
  • Unsafe ladders
  • Obstructions or slippery deck
  • Failure to warn
  • Inadequate response to weather conditions

In Batterton, for example, the plaintiff was a deckhand whose hand was crushed by a hatch cover that blew open while the crew was pumping air into a compartment. In this case, the cause of unseaworthiness was the lack of an exhaust mechanism, which could have relieved the pressure on the hatch cover and prevented the injury from occurring.

Unseaworthiness claims are distinct from negligence claims. Under the unseaworthiness doctrine, the owners and operators of vessels have a duty to keep the vessel in safe operating order. A failure to do so will automatically result in liability when an injury occurs because of a dangerous condition. No knowledge of the dangerous condition is required for the ship owners to be held liable.

Negligence, on the other hand, requires a showing that the owners or operators of the vessel knowingly allowed a dangerous condition to develop and that they failed to take reasonable precautions against it. It’s more difficult to prove negligence than unseaworthiness. Nonetheless, punitive damages are not available to plaintiffs in negligence cases, regardless of the fact that negligence involves greater wrongdoing.

No Punitive Damages Are Allowed in Jones Act Negligence Claims

For this reason, some legal commentators have criticized the Ninth Circuit’s decision to allow punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases, but not in Jones Act negligence cases. This apparent contradiction and the inconsistency between the Ninth and the Fifth Circuits will need to be resolved at some point. In the next few years, it is likely that the Supreme Court will take up the matter.

Contact a Houston Maritime Lawyer Today

Our Houston maritime lawyers at The Krist Law Firm, P.C. closely follow changes to the laws and regulations that apply to the maritime industry. By staying up-to-date on these changes, we are able to better accomplish our mission of getting injured maritime workers the compensation they deserve after an accident. If you or a family member has been injured at sea, call us today at (281) 283-8500 for a free consultation.