Supreme Court rules that seaman can recover punitive damages in admiralty for maintenance and cure situations.

Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Landmark Case

ATLANTIC SOUNDING CO., INC., ET AL. v. TOWNSEND

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

No. 08–214. Argued March 2, 2009—Decided June 25, 2009
Atlantic Sounding Co. allegedly refused to pay maintenance and cure torespondent Townsend for injuries he suffered while working on itstugboat, and then filed this declaratory relief action regarding its ob-ligations. Townsend filed suit under the Jones Act and general mari-time law, alleging, inter alia, arbitrary and willful failure to provide maintenance and cure. He filed similar counterclaims in the declara-tory judgment action, seeking punitive damages for the maintenanceand cure claim. The District Court denied petitioners’ motion to dis-miss the punitive damages claim, but certified the question for inter-locutory appeal. Following its precedent, the Eleventh Circuit heldthat punitive damages may be awarded for the willful withholding of maintenance and cure.

Held: Because punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law, and because neither Miles v. Apex Ma-rine Corp., 498 U. S. 19, nor the Jones Act altered this understand-ing, punitive damages for the willful and wanton disregard of themaintenance and cure obligation remain available as a matter ofgeneral maritime law. Pp. 2–19.
(a)
Settled legal principles establish three points central to this case. Pp. 2–9.
(i)
Punitive damages have long been an available remedy at common law for wanton, willful, or outrageous conduct. English lawduring the colonial era accorded juries the authority to award suchdamages when warranted. And American courts have likewise per-mitted such damages since at least 1784. This Court has also found punitive damages authorized as a matter of common-law doctrine. See, e.g., Day v. Woodworth, 13 How. 363. Pp. 3–5.