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Legal Blog

SCOTUS Hears Case Regarding Punitive Damages in Maritime Injury Cases

On June 24, the United States Supreme Court ruled that injured sailors can no longer recover punitive damages in maritime injury cases. This means that if you sue your employer because you were injured as a result of their failure to maintain the ship in a seaworthy condition, the Court only has the authority to compensate you for your losses. The Court cannot force your employer to pay additional punitive damages in maritime injury related cases. Generally, these damages are reserved for those few cases where a shipowner does something outrageous, reckless, or unusually negligent. This ruling will only affect a relatively small number of maritime injury cases.

When you get injured at sea, you face a battle when you get home. Not only must you heal from your injuries and support yourself and your family, but you’ll also need to take action to get adequate compensation from your employer. At The Krist Law Firm, P.C., our goal is to help you get the compensation you deserve so that you can focus on getting back to your normal life.

To schedule a free, initial consultation of your case with an experienced Houston maritime lawyer, call (281) 283-8500, or reach out through the online form.

Punitive Damages are Unavailable in Unseaworthiness Cases

When you are injured in a maritime accident, the law gives you multiple avenues for seeking compensation against the shipowner. You can sue them for negligence, as authorized by the Jones Act. Alternatively, you can sue the sue shipowner under the theory of unseaworthiness, which does not require you to prove their negligence. Instead, you need to demonstrate that the ship was unseaworthy, and that its unseaworthiness caused your injuries.

The unseaworthiness of a vessel could manifest itself and injure you in many ways, including:

  • Engine malfunction
  • Fuel vapor leak
  • Lines breaking
  • Loose machinery or cargo
  • Cluttered deck
  • Incompetent crew or captain
  • Inadequate anti-slip surfaces and handrails
  • Malfunctioning navigation or communications equipment

You’ll notice that the unseaworthiness doctrine doesn’t just concern the ship itself – it concerns the crew and all of the fixtures of the vessel as well. The shipowner has a duty to ensure that the ship, its equipment, and crew meet a minimum standard. They are strictly liable for damages that result from a failure to meet this standard.

Besides not having to prove negligence, another benefit of the unseaworthiness doctrine over the Jones Act is a wider range of available damages. The Jones act has several limits on the amount and type of damages you can recover. But the unseaworthiness allows larger settlements for sailors that encompass more types of damages. Previously this included punitive damages. But now, the Supreme Court has removed this possibility.

The Supreme Court decided that punitive damages were inappropriate in unseaworthiness cases because in its overview of traditional maritime law cases, it found insufficient evidence that punitive damages were a common remedy. Additionally, Congress had the ability to explicitly create a way for sailors to get punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases, yet failed to make any law explicitly authorizing this type of damages. The Supreme Court stated that it was not appropriate to create a new remedy without basis in traditional law, and which Congress decided not to write into legislation.

Seek Help for Your Maritime Case Today

You can still seek compensation for loss of income, physical pain, mental anguish, medical expenses, and disability if you sue your employer under the unseaworthiness doctrine. Additional damages meant to punish – and not to compensate – are off the table. But with the right legal team behind you, your case will be easy to navigate. It’s essential that you and your Houston maritime lawyer describe and document exactly how the injury has affected your professional and personal life.

Contact The Krist Law Firm, P.C. at (281) 283-8500, or reach out online to schedule a free evaluation today.