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Seamen Can Seek Punitive Damages As Per New Court Ruling


Posted in Get To Know Maritime Law on June 18, 2018


A new legal precedent was set earlier this year when the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that injured fishermen and seamen are able to seek punitive damages under maritime.

While other court decisions had determined that plaintiffs did not have the right to seek compensation, this new ruling affirmed that if a shipowner acted in gross negligence which lead to unseaworthy work conditions, then a maritime worker could potentially recover lost income, pain and suffering, and other damages.

This verdict could have profound effects for maritime workers, and your Houston maritime lawyers at Lapeze & Johns are keeping their eyes on the consequences of this event.

The Batterton v. Dutra Group Lawsuit

Plaintiff Christopher Batterton was a deckhand on a vessel owned by defendant Dutra Group when a hatch cover suddenly blew open and crushed Batterton’s left hand. The incident occurred as a result of air being pumped into a compartment which had no exhaust system to relieve the pressure.

Batterton sued the vessel owner claiming that the lack of an exhaust system made the vessel unseaworthy and sought punitive damages as the accident resulted in permanent disability. The defendant argued that non-pecuniary damages were not applicable.

What is considered “unseaworthy”?

Under maritime law, there are three components to a seaworthy vessel: its hull, equipment, and crew. If any of these components are not functioning at full capacity, then the vessel may be considered unseaworthy.

In other words:

  • A vessel owner is responsible for maintaining a seaworthy ship.
  • Faulty equipment, parts, or an inadequately trained crew can cause a vessel to be deemed unseaworthy.
  • A vessel owner is responsible for providing adequate safety equipment for the vessel and crewmen.

What is key to remember is that a vessel owner must have reasonably proper and suitable parts and equipment.

What are punitive damages?

Punitive damages are very different than compensatory damages.

Punitive damages are compensation awarded to the injured party as punishment to the responsible party for instances of gross negligence or malicious intent. In this instance, the punitive damages are also meant to impel the employer to act more diligently to provide a safe working environment for its employees as well as to deter other potential maritime employers from acting in the same manner.

What Batterton v. Dutra Group Means For Maritime Workers

Being able to seek punitive damages in cases of unseaworthiness means maritime workers and seamen who are injured on the job will likely increase compensation for their on-the-job injuries if they decide to take it to court. Additionally, increased payments to maritime workers will also hopefully mean companies will take their responsibilities more seriously and provide safer working conditions for their employees.

Unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules otherwise, maritime workers will have the ability to seek punitive damages if they are injured on the job.

Contact Lapeze & Johns if you have been injured as a result of an unseaworthy vessel.

With more than 20 years of experience in handling maritime claims, Christopher Johns and Keith Lapeze are passionate about defending the hard-working men and women who were injured while working at sea.

If you or a loved one has been injured due to the unseaworthiness of a vessel, contact our Houston and Gulf Coast maritime lawyers today at (713) 739-1010 for a free initial consultation.