Punitive Damages for Failure to Pay Maintenance and Cure

Injured workers and seamen are entitled to several forms of recovery when they are injured offshore or on the high seas. Consult with the offshore injury lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard to ensure your legal rights are protected.

Maintenance and Cure

Maritime workers are entitled to maintenance and cure when they are injured. “A claim for maintenance and cure concerns the vessel owner’s obligation to provide food, lodging, and medical services to a seaman injured while serving the ship.” Lewis v. Lewis & Clark Marine, Inc., 531 U.S. 438, 441 (2001).

The basis for maintenance and cure, first recognized in the 1800s by Justice Story, is that “[i]f some provision be not made for [seamen] in sickness at the expense of the ship, they must often in foreign ports suffer the accumulated evils of disease, and poverty, and sometimes perish from the want of suitable nourishment . . . the merchant himself derives an ultimate benefit [because i]t encourages seamen to engage in perilous voyages with more promptitute, and at lower wages.” Harden v. Gordon, 11 F. Cas. 480, 483 (CC Me. 1823).

Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend: Offshore Workers Are Entitled to Punitive Damages for Failure to Pay Maintenance and Cure

In Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, the United States Supreme Court held that injured seamen are entitled to punitive damages when their employer refuses to pay maintenance and cure. 557 U.S. 404 (209).

Edgar Townsend was a crewman on a tugboat. He suffered arm and shoulder injuries after falling on the deck of the vessel. The tugboat owner, Atlantic Sounding, advised that it would not provide maintenance and cure. Mr. Towsend sued Atlantic Sounding seeking, among other things, punitive damages for the failure to pay maintenance and cure.

In reviewing the case, the Supreme Court first noted that, since 1784, juries have had “broad discretion to set damages includ[ing] the authority to award punitive damages when the circumstances of the case warranted.” The Court further stated that damages in a lawsuit are designed “not only as a satisfaction to the injured person, but likewise as a punishment to the guilty, to deter from any such proceeding for the future, and as proof of the detestation of the jury to the action itself.” Finally, the Court recognized that punitive damages “exten[d] to claims arising under federal maritime law,” and that the Jones Act does not eliminate or prohibit such actions.

To the contrary, the Court held, the Jones Act expressly provides injured seamen the right to “elect” the Jones Act remedy, which necessarily means there are other remedies available. As the Court put it, “[i]f the Jones Act had been the only remaining remedy available to injured seamen, there would have been no election to make.” Furthermore, the Jones Act is “remedial, for the benefit and protection of seamen who are peculiarly the wards of admiralty. Its purpose [is] to enlarge that protection, not to narrow it.” And, “the laudable quest for uniformity in admiralty does not require the narrowing of available damages to the lowest common denominator approved by Congress for distinct causes of action.”

The Court concluded that “[b]ecause punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law, and because nothing in the Jones Act altered this understanding, such damages for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation should remain available in the appropriate case as a matter of general maritime law.”

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