Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend,
557 U.S. 404 (2009)

Annotate this Case




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 to respondent Townsend for injuries he suffered while working on its tugboat, and then filed this declaratory relief action regarding its obligations. Townsend filed suit under the Jones Act and general maritime law, alleging, inter alia, arbitrary and willful failure to provide maintenance and cure. He filed similar counterclaims in the declaratory judgment action, seeking punitive damages for the maintenance and cure claim. The District Court denied petitioners’ motion to dismiss the punitive damages claim, but certified the question for interlocutory appeal. Following its precedent, the Eleventh Circuit held that 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 Marine Corp., 498 U. S. 19, nor the Jones Act altered this understanding, punitive damages for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation remain available as a matter of general 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 law during the colonial era accorded juries the authority to award such damages when warranted. And American courts have likewise permitted 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.

      (ii) The common-law punitive damages tradition extends to claims arising under federal maritime law. See Lake Shore & Michigan Southern R. Co. v. Prentice, 147 U. S. 101, 108. One of this Court’s first cases so indicating involved an action for marine trespass. See The Amiable Nancy, 3 Wheat. 546. And lower federal courts have found punitive damages available in maritime actions for particularly egregious tortious acts. Pp. 5–6.

      (iii) Nothing in maritime law undermines this general rule’s applicability in the maintenance and cure context. The maintenance and cure obligation dates back centuries as an aspect of general maritime law, and the failure of a seaman’s employers to provide adequate medical care was the basis for awarding punitive damages in cases decided in the 1800’s. This Court has since registered its agreement with such decisions and has subsequently found that in addition to wages, “maintenance” includes food and lodging at the ship’s expense, and “cure” refers to medical treatment, Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc., 531 U. S. 438, 441. Moreover, an owner’s failure to provide proper medical care for seamen has provided lower courts the impetus to award damages that appear to contain at least some punitive element. Pp. 7–8.

      (iv) Under these settled legal principles, respondent is entitled to pursue punitive damages unless Congress has enacted legislation that departs from the common-law understanding. P. 9.

   (b) The plain language of the Jones Act does not provide a basis for overturning the common-law rule. Congress enacted the Jones Act to overrule The Osceola, 189 U. S. 158, where the Court prohibited a seaman or his family from recovering for injuries or death suffered due to his employers’ negligence. To that end, the Act created a statutory negligence cause of action, but it did not eliminate pre-existing remedies available to seamen for the separate common-law cause of action based on maintenance and cure. The Act bestows the right to “elect” to bring a Jones Act claim, thereby indicating a choice of actions for seamen—not an exclusive remedy. Because the then-accepted remedies arose from general maritime law, it necessarily follows that Congress envisioned their continued availability. See Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U. S. 347, 354. Had the Jones Act been the only remaining remedy available, there would have been no election to make. And, the only statutory restrictions on general maritime maintenance and cure claims were enacted long after the Jones Act’s passage and limit availability for only two discrete classes: foreign workers on offshore oil and mineral production facilities and sailing school students and instructors. This indicates that “Congress knows how to” restrict the traditional maintenance and cure remedy “when it wants to.” Omni Capital Int’l, Ltd. v. Rudolf Wolff & Co., 484 U. S. 97, 106. This Court has consistently observed that the Jones Act preserves common-law causes of action such as maintenance and cure, see. e.g., The Arizona v. Anelich, 298 U. S. 110, and its case law supports the view that punitive damages awards, in particular, continue to remain available in maintenance and cure actions, see Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U. S. 527. Pp. 9–13.

      (i) Contrary to petitioners’ argument, Miles does not limit recovery to the remedies available under the Jones Act. Miles does not address either maintenance and cure actions in general or the availability of punitive damages for such actions. Instead, it grappled with the entirely different question whether general maritime law should provide a cause of action for wrongful death based on unseaworthiness. The Court found that the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), along with state statutes, supported recognition of a general maritime rule for wrongful death of a seaman. However, since Congress had chosen to limit the damages available in the Jones Act and DOHSA, excluding damages for loss of society or lost future earnings, 498 U. S., at 21, 31–32, its judgment must control the availability of remedies for wrongful-death actions brought under general maritime law, id., at 32–36. Miles’ reasoning does not apply here. Unlike Miles’ situation, both the general maritime cause of action here (maintenance and cure) and the remedy (punitive damages) were well established before the Jones Act’s passage. And unlike Miles’ facts, the Jones Act does not address the general maritime cause of action here or its remedy. It is thus possible to adhere to the traditional understanding of maritime actions and remedies without abridging or violating the Jones Act; unlike wrongful-death actions, this traditional understanding is not a matter to which “Congress has spoken directly.” See id., at 31. Moreover, petitioners’ contrary view was directly rejected in Norfolk Shipbuilding & Drydock Corp. v. Garris, 532 U. S. 811, 820. If Miles presented no barrier to the Garris Court’s endorsement of a previously unrecognized maritime cause of action for negligent wrongful death, there is no legitimate basis for a contrary conclusion here. Like negligence, the duty of maintenance and cure and the general availability of punitive damages have been recognized “for more than a century,” 532 U. S., at 820. And because respondent does not ask this Court to alter statutory text or “expand” the maritime tort law’s general principles, Miles does not require eliminating the general maritime remedy of punitive damages for the willful or wanton failure to comply with the duty to pay maintenance and cure. The fact that seamen commonly seek to recover under the Jones Act for maintenance and cure claims, does not mean that the Jones Act provides the only remedy. See Cortes v. Baltimore Insular Line, Inc., 287 U. S. 367, 374–375. The laudable quest for uniformity in admiralty does not require narrowing available damages to the lowest common denominator approved by Congress for distinct causes of action. Pp. 13–19.

496 F. 3d 1282, affirmed and remanded.

   Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia and Kennedy, JJ., joined.

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