Specifically, the seafarer has the right to recover pecuniary losses only, the losses the seafarer may recover for negligence under the Jones Act.
This decision reverses the decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Batterton v Dutra Group, 880 F.3d 1089 (9th Cir. 2018) and aligns with the result of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in McBride v Estis Well Servs. LLC, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 2310 (2015). Therefore, the court has resolved a split in the circuit courts of appeal and established a clear rule regarding all actions by seafarers against owners of ships.
At first, the Court considered 'whether punitive damages have traditionally been awarded for claims of unseaworthiness and whether conformity with parallel statutory schemes would require such damages.' It concluded that punitive damages had not been awarded in unseaworthiness cases and that enabling punitive damages for unseaworthiness when they are not allowed for negligence under the Jones Act would be contrary to promoting conformity with parallel statutory schemes.
In addition, the court considered whether it should consider itself 'compelled on policy grounds to allow punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims.' As negligence cases under the Jones Act do not allow recovery of punitive damages:
It would exceed our current role to introduce novel remedies contradictory to those Congress has provided in similar areas
Moreover, the court was reluctant to leave from the practice under the Jones Act, as a claim of unseaworthiness serves as a duplicate and substitute for a Jones Act claim.'
It added that there are important economic incentives that make owners ensure that their vessels are seaworthy and pointed out 'bizarre disparities in the law' if it held punitive damages were available to seafarers in unseaworthiness cases and not in Jones Act negligence cases.
Furthermore, the court stated that allowing punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases would:
Discourage foreign-owned vessels from employing American seamen’ and would ‘frustrate another fundamental interest served by federal maritime jurisdiction: the protection of maritime commerce
Continuing, Standard Club said that the court recognized the special solicitude US courts have taken to the welfare of seafarers. However, the court highlighted this solicitude took place when the common law placed restrictions on the rights of seafarers to recover for their injuries. For this reason, it decided that:
In light of these changes and of the roles now played by the Judiciary and the political branches in protecting sailors, the special solicitude to sailors has only a small role to play in contemporary maritime law
Now, the court’s decision will lead to further predictability to all concerned parties and should allow experienced lawyers to resolve cases fairly as well as sooner rather than later.