Punitive Damages Explained

Maritime Cases: Punitive Damages Explained

Many maritime workers are already aware of the fact that if they get hurt while on the job, they may be entitled to a variety of damages, to include compensation for things such as medical costs, lost earnings and future lost earnings, just to name a few. But there is also a category of damages that are known as “punitive” damages. Your maritime lawyer knows that punitive damages are typically not available in many maritime cases, primarily because of certain Jones Act prohibitions that will not allow for damages that are considered to be “non-pecuniary.” However, the law is ever-evolving, and based on a number of recent court rulings, a small class of injured workers aboard a vessel might be able to seek punitive damages.

Punitive Damages: What are They?

Punitive damages are civil damages that are not compensatory in nature, but rather they are damages that are generally awarded in an effort to punish the defendant in litigation for its misconduct. The amount of a punitive damage award is usually based on the nature of the defendant’s conduct, as well as his or her character, the defendant’s financial situation, how much harm others may experience if the defendant is not punished, and the amount of harm actually suffered by the individual who filed the lawsuit. Keep in mind, a maritime employer’s negligence alone is not sufficient for punitive damages, but rather the misconduct must be willful and/or intentional with a gross, reckless disregard for the safety of the injured crewmember.

Can an Individual Receive Punitive Damages in a Maritime Injury Case?

As noted above, the law is unsettled with respect to the awarding of punitive damages in maritime injury cases. A recent Supreme Court decision noted that such damages can be awarded in maintenance and cure cases; however, as your maritime lawyer knows, there is still no clear-cut answer with regard to certain other types of maritime cases.

If the case at issue is a maintenance and cure case, injured seamen are now able to seek punitive damages if the seaman’s employer wantonly, willfully and/or recklessly failed to pay the appropriate amount of maintenance and cure, failed to pay maintenance and cure altogether, delayed payment with respect to maintenance and cure or terminated a seaman’s maintenance and cure with no good cause. Notably, this legal principle was recently reaffirmed in a United States Supreme Court case called Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend, and our firm filed an amicus curiae brief in that case.

Additionally, with regard to passengers and their negligence claims against cruise lines, courts have found that passengers have a right to punitive damages in personal injury negligence suits under general maritime law.

Unseaworthiness and Jones Act Cases

Obtaining punitive damages in Jones Act and unseaworthiness cases is still unclear. Courts in various federal circuits have ruled differently. For instance, some judges have found that punitive damages are permitted in negligence and unseaworthiness cases, while others have allowed for punitive damages in unseaworthiness, but not negligence cases. Still, other judges have ruled that punitive damages are not permitted in either kind of case.

Regardless of whether you are a maritime worker who has sustained injuries while performing a job duty or you are a passenger on a cruise ship, it is important for you to know your rights under the law with respect to punitive damages, and most simply, whether or not they are available. If you have questions, contact a maritime lawyer at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. today. Let us help you obtain the just compensation you deserve.