June 25, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend

On June 25, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, No. 08-214.

Edgar Townsend, while working as a crew member on the Motor Tug Thomas, fell and injured his arm and shoulder. The tug's owner, Atlantic Sounding, told him it would not provide maintenance and cure, which provoked dueling lawsuits. Atlantic Sounding sued for declaratory judgment. Townsend counterclaimed, seeking, among other remedies, punitive damages for Atlantic Sounding's alleged willful disregard of its obligation to provide maintenance and cure. He also filed an independent suit seeking punitive damages there as well.

The Supreme Court held that general maritime law authorizes, and no statute precludes, punitive damages for the willful disregard of a vessel owner's obligation to provide maintenance and cure. Surveying the common law, the Court found three points establishing this. First, punitive damages have long been available at common law. Second, the common-law tradition of punitive damages extends to maritime claims. And third, there is no evidence that claims for maintenance and cure were excluded from the general admiralty rule.

The Court rejected Atlantic Sounding's argument that the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104(a), precludes punitive damages by providing an exclusive remedy for injured seamen. Section 301040 gives an injured seaman the right to "elect" to bring a Jones Act claims, the Court noted. It does not displace the common law; it offers a choice. The Court distinguished its decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), which held that the Jones Act and another maritime statute provide the exclusive remedies for actions for the wrongful death of a seaman. Claims for wrongful death, noted the Court, did not exist at general maritime law. They were created by statute and are hence limited by statute. Claims for maintenance and cure, by contrast, were well established at general maritime law, and the Jones Act does not express any intent to limit the remedies traditionally available for those claims.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Kennedy joined.

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