On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that will have a significant effect on the workboat industry.
In Atlantic Sounding Co. Inc. v. Townsend , the case centered on whether a seaman can recover punitive damages for a vessel owner’s failure to pay maintenance and cure benefits. Maintenance and cure, or a daily living allowance and the cost of medical treatment, are benefits that a seaman is automatically entitled to when he becomes injured or ill while in the service of the vessel aboard which he works. The vessel owner is legally obligated to pay such benefits irrespective of fault. A few narrowly applied defenses include a seaman’s willful misconduct or intentional concealment of a pre-existing injury or medical condition. The law makes it extremely difficult for a vessel owner to be absolved of responsibility for the payment of maintenance and cure.
Until now, a seaman’s remedies against a vessel owner differed depending on the jurisdiction where legal action was pursued. There was a split among the federal circuit courts of appeals as to whether a seaman could be awarded punitive damages when wrongfully denied maintenance and cure benefits. For the last two decades, the trend has been to deny punitive damages in seamen’s cases. However, citing historical English and American case law on punitive damage awards, the Supreme Court concluded that nothing in maritime law prohibited punitive damages in a wrongful denial of maintenance and cure benefits claim.
The Townsend case will potentially expose vessel owners and Jones Act employers to punitive damages if they fail to provide maintenance and cure benefits to injured or ill crewmembers. These damages, designed to punish a recalcitrant employer, are in addition to other damages a seaman may be entitled to for his injuries or for the worsening of his condition due to delayed medical treatment.
However, to prevail in a punitive damages claim, a seaman must prove that the denial of such benefits was willful and without justification.