On June 25, 2009, in the case of Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 129 S.Ct. 2561 (2009), the U.S. Supreme Court said “Yes”. In so holding, the Court resolved a conflict between the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which held punitive damages were available) and the Second, Third, Fifth and Ninth Circuits which found that they were not.
In Atlantic Sounding, Edgar Townsend was employed as a seaman aboard Atlantic Sounding’s Motor Tug Thomas when he injured his arm after falling on the deck. Atlantic Sounding refused to provide maintenance and cure even though Townsend was injured while in the service of a vessel. Townsend filed suit under the Jones Act and general maritime law alleging negligence, unseaworthiness and arbitrary and willful failure to pay maintenance, among others.
In its reasoning, the Court first acknowledged that punitive damages have long been available at common law for willful, wanton or outrageous conduct, and were first extended to claims under federal maritime law in 1893). See Lake Shore & Michigan Southern R. Co. v. Prentice, 147 U. S. 101, 108, 13 S.Ct. 261, 37 L.Ed. 97 (1893). The Court observed that the maintenance and cure obligation dates back centuries as an aspect of general maritime law, and the failure of a seaman’s employer to provide adequate medical care was the basis for awarding punitive damages in cases decided in the 1800’s. In fact, the Court registered its agreement with such decisions and has found that in addition to wages, “maintenance” includes food and lodging at the ship’s expense, and “cure” refers to medical treatment. Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc., 531 U. S. 438, 441, 121 S.Ct. 993, 148 L.Ed.2d 931 (2001). The Court noted that an owner’s failure to provide proper medical care for seamen has provided lower courts the impetus to award damages that appear to contain at least some punitive element.
The Court then turned its attention to and rejected arguments by Atlantic Soundings that the decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 111 S.Ct. 317, 112 L.Ed.2d 275 (1990), which stated that damages for loss of society may not be recovered on a general maritime law wrongful death claim, was controlling. The Court distinguished Miles since that case did not address maintenance and cure actions in general, or the availability of punitive damages in such actions. Instead, the Court in Miles only considered whether the general maritime law should provide a cause of action for wrongful death based on unseaworthiness.
The Court also acknowledged that Congress has enacted no legislation precluding an award of punitive damages to a seaman whose employer willfully fails to pay maintenance and cure. What’s more, the Court has consistently found that the Jones Act preserves common-law causes of action such as maintenance and cure (The Arizona v. Anelich, 298 U. S. 110, 56 S.Ct. 707, 80 L.Ed. 1075 (1936)) and case law from the Supreme Court supports the view that punitive damages awards continue to remain available in maintenance and cure actions. See, Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U. S. 527, 82 S.Ct. 997, 8 L.Ed.2d 88 (1962)
The Court concluded that because punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law, and because neither the holding in Miles, nor the Jones Act altered this understanding, punitive damages for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation remain available as a matter of general maritime law.