Are punitive damages available for unseaworthiness?

On Behalf of | Aug 27, 2020 | Admiralty & Maritime Law

The U.S. Supreme Court is consistent in hearing maritime cases in an attempt to help further define maritime laws, which are rather general in nature and leave much up to interpretation by the courts.

In a recent attempt to solidify laws regarding the ability to collect punitive damages in a personal injury case based on unseaworthiness, the SCOTUS Blog explains the court made the decision against allowing such damages.

The reasoning

The majority opinion found that general maritime law does not allow for punitive damages due to unseaworthiness in a personal injury situation. The historical record for awarding punitive damages shows that seaman assigned to a vessel that is unseaworthy suffers injury cannot sue for punitive damages. The court aimed to uphold that history to help create and promote more unified decisions in maritime law cases.

The explanation

Maritime law does allow for exemplary damages for injuries due to unseaworthiness, which it defines as a vessel that is not fit for its intended purpose. The law also does allow for punitive damages when an employer does not uphold the obligation to pay maintenance and cure, so it could be possible for a personal injury case to have a punitive damages award, but not for the unseaworthiness aspect of the argument.

The fact that punitive damage may occur in an unseaworthiness case but not due to the actual condition of the vessel speaks to the complexity of such laws and former rulings in these types of court cases. It also is what is at the heart of the SCOTUS hearing maritime cases and trying to decipher gray areas or areas that lead to a lot of confusion.

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