Punitive Damages in Maritime Cases

An explanation of these kinds of damages, and when they might be awarded in a maritime worker's injury claim.

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If you are a commercial fisherman or merchant seaman who was injured on the job, you are entitled to all of the usual types of compensation that are available, including lost earnings, future lost earning capacity, medical expenses, and pain and suffering. But are you entitled to punitive damages in a maritime injury case? Read on to learn more.

What are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are a special category of civil damages. They are not compensatory, meaning they are not meant to compensate the injured seaman for his/her injuries or damages. Instead, punitive damages are awarded for the sole purpose of punishing the defendant. The amount of a punitive damages award is based on the character and nature of the defendant’s conduct, how much money the defendant has, how much harm other victims might suffer if this particular defendant is not punished, as well as the actual harm suffered by the plaintiff.

(Learn more about Damages in a Personal Injury Case.)

In general, punitive damages are granted for a defendant’s willful, wanton, and/or reckless behavior. The best way to describe willful, wanton, and/or reckless behavior is that it is conduct that is outrageous, grossly negligent, or recklessly indifferent to the rights of others. A good example of willful, wanton, and/or reckless conduct is driving a car at 100 MPH through a school zone while children are getting out of school.

Punitive Damages in Maritime Injury Cases

Currently, the law is in flux with respect to the issue of punitive damages in maritime injury cases. The Supreme Court recently issued a very important decision on the subject, with the result being that punitive damages are now definitely allowed on maintenance and cure claims, but the law is less clear cut on Jones Act negligence or unseaworthiness issues. Let’s take a look at these issues in a little more detail.

Punitive Damages and 'Maintenance and Cure'

Based on this recent Supreme Court decision, an injured seaman is now entitled to punitive damages if the seaman’s employer willfully, wantonly, and/or recklessly:

  • fails to pay maintenance and cure
  • fails to pay the proper amount of maintenance and cure
  • delays payment of maintenance and cure, or
  • terminates a seaman’s maintenance and cure without good cause.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of improper behavior with respect to maintenance and cure that might lead to an award of punitive damages.

An easy example is when a seaman is injured on his/her ship, the injury is witnessed by other crew members, the seaman reports the injury immediately to his/her supervisor, and cooperates fully with the employer and insurer, but the employer flatly refuses to pay maintenance and cure for undisclosed reasons. This kind of behavior will likely subject the employer to an order to pay punitive damages.

Let’s look at a case that is a little less clear cut. Let’s say that the employer is already paying maintenance and cure. But after a year of treatment, the seaman has still not returned to work, so the employer sends the seaman to an “Independent Medical Exam” (IME). The IME physician writes that, in general, the seaman should be able to perform some work, but does not go into detail as to what type of work the seaman might be able to do. Nor did the employer ever inform the IME physician as to the nature of the seaman’s duties on the vessel.

Based on the IME report, the employer terminates the seaman’s maintenance and cure on the grounds that the seaman is able to return to his/her old job on the vessel. The IME physician never said that the seaman could return to work on the employer’s ship. The IME physician did not even know what type of work the seaman performed. In this situation, a judge or jury could very well rule that the employer simply did not have enough information to terminate the seaman’s maintenance and cure, and that its termination of benefits was willful, wanton, and/or reckless, thereby entitling the seaman to punitive damages. But again, it's a closer call than our first example.

More: Maintenance and Cure and Maritime Worker Injuries.

Punitive Damages in Jones Act and 'Unseaworthiness' Cases

Unfortunately, there is no clear law on this issue. Since the Supreme Court issued its decision in 2009, judges in different federal circuits have interpreted the ruling in different ways. Some judges have ruled that punitive damages are now allowed in negligence and unseaworthiness cases. Other judges have ruled that punitive damages are allowed in unseaworthiness cases, but not negligence cases. And still other judges have ruled that punitive damages are not allowed in either type of case. Learn more about Negligence and Unseaworthiness Claims.

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