The issue of punitive damages for failure to pay maintenance and cure under the Jones Act is perhaps my favorite topic in maritime law. In most states, punitive damages are available only in rare instances, if even available at all. Additionally, it can be rather difficult to prove up a level of culpability sufficient to qualify an injured plaintiff to receive punitive damages. Punitive damages for failure to pay maintenance and cure is no different.
During my tenure of actively litigating on behalf of injured Jones Act seamen, I encountered only two cases where punitive damages were potentially on the table, so to speak. In one case, a settlement was reached prior to trial, where the judge would have ruled on the merits of our punitive damages claim. Therefore, whether punitive damages would have been awarded in that case will never be known. I would like to think they would have.
I was successful in assisting another client in obtaining a judgment for punitive damages recently in Louisiana State Court. Seeing the order was the pinnacle of my maritime litigation career thus far. I must admit the facts in that case were particularly egregious and so the question of entitlement to punitive damages wasn’t too far “up in the air.” However, I must note the judge in that case did not set the amount of punitive damages, he reserved the resolution of that issue for later proceedings. Therefore, there is a decent probability the case will settle prior to that amount being set by judge or a jury. In the end, I consider the mere entitlement to punitive damages a major victory and one I am extremely proud of.
Under the Jones Act and General Maritime Law, injured seamen are entitled to punitive damages when their employer fails to pay maintenance and/or cure. The reason for this is because the right for an injured seaman to receive maintenance and cure is an ancient right and one that is firmly embedded in maritime jurisprudence. The right to receive maintenance and cure has its origins in ancient codes which are perhaps thousands of years old.
To receive maintenance and cure, a seaman merely has to be injured while working in service of the vessel. The right is not tied to any specific showing of negligence on behalf of the vessel owner. Simply getting hurt while on the job is sufficient to entitle an injured seaman to maintenance and cure. Therefore, the right to receive maintenance and cure should be very simple and straightforward and not subject to technical exceptions or work around. The courts over the years have tried to keep it this way.
To receive punitive damages for failure to pay maintenance and cure under the Jones Act and General Maritime Law, the injured seaman must show not only that the vessel owner failed to pay them maintenance and/or cure, but that such failure was arbitrary, capricious, and recalcitrant. In fact, courts over the years have used a number of different adjectives to describe the level of culpability, on the part of the vessel owner, necessary to entitle an injured seaman to punitive damages for failure to pay maintenance and cure. At this juncture, just note the facts of the case must show a heightened level of culpability in order to receive punitive damages.
Practically speaking, this heightened level of culpability is usually satisfied when there is a failure to pay maintenance and cure coupled with no plausible or legitimate reason for not doing so. Again, the law is more nuanced than this last statement, which is why we will continue to explore these nuances as I create more content for the website.
In addition to receiving punitive damages, a seaman also qualifies for reimbursement of attorney fees expended in recovering unpaid maintenance and cure. As we will see, there are various levels of culpability which are assigned specific categories of damages available for each level. Obviously, the arbitrary and capricious level of culpability entitles an injured seaman to both punitive damages and attorney fees. Calculating the amount of punitive damages due in a failure to pay maintenance and cure claim is variable. There are several different methods for calculating the amounts of punitive damages available, and we will try and explore all of them. The Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue before, and we will cover those opinions in depth as it has caused somewhat of a quagmire for lower courts in trying to calculate the correct measure of punitive damages.
Generally speaking, punitive damages are intended to punish a defendant for the conduct at issue. The purpose of this “punishment” is to try and discourage the defendant, and hopefully others similarly situated, from engaging in the same or similar conduct. Corporations, for the most part, really do not respond to anything other than their bottom line. As such, the theory is that if you hit the company’s bottom line hard enough, it will prevent it from engaging in the same conduct in the future.
Punitive damages in failure to pay maintenance and cure claims is essential to help protect seamen, who do not have any other recourse if their employer fails to pay them maintenance and cure. Moreover, failing to pay maintenance and/or cure, and particularly cure, could have dire consequences for a seaman. For instance, if a Jones Act employer fails to pay for an essential medical procedure, the seaman’s injuries could be exacerbated and could exert a greater effect on them for the rest of their lives. Therefore, it important to for a seaman to have the punitive damages arrow in their quiver as a means to try and force shipowners to fulfill their ancient duty under the law, as embodied in the Jones Act and General Maritime Law.
Out of all the categories of issues we will be covering on Mr. Maritime Law, claims for failure to pay maintenance and cure under the Jones Act and General Maritime Law is my favorite. Please expect lots of great content on this issue, including some real deep dives into some the finer points and nuances in this area. Again, I want to thank everyone who has shown support for the site and social media pages!!! I really look forward to continuing this journey with y’all and all others who will continue to join in the future!!! Please do not hesitate to reach out should you have questions regarding this content or any other content on Mr. Maritime Law.