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Punitive Damages may be Available in Maintenance & Cure Cases

This past June, the US Supreme Court issued its opinion in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, a maritime law case that required the Court to decide whether injured seamen are entitled to punitive damages when their employers willfully fail to provide them with maintenance and cure. In a 5-4 decision, the majority ruled that punitive damages may be awarded when the vessel's owner willfully withholds the required payments for maintenance and cure.

Right to Maintenance and Cure

Generally, when a seaman is injured or falls sick during the course of his or her work for a vessel, the seaman is entitled to payment of maintenance and cure from his or her employer.

Historically, "maintenance" referred to payment for room and board once the injured worker left the vessel. The payment was meant to compensate the seaman for the room and board that otherwise would have been furnished on the boat. The concept of maintenance has been expanded by the courts to include wages in addition to food and lodging. An injured seaman is entitled to maintenance from the time he or she leaves the vessel until the time he or she has reached the maximum medical cure for his or her injury or illness.

"Cure" refers to payment for an injured seaman's medical treatment. Unlike maintenance, these payments begin immediately after a worker is injured and continue until the worker has either reached maximum medical cure or the illness or injury has stabilized.

Seamen are entitled to maintenance and cure whenever they are working in service of the vessel, regardless of whether or not they are physically aboard the vessel at the time of injury. For example, if the worker slips on a dock and dislocates his back, he still is entitled to maintenance and cure for the injury even though it did not happen on the vessel. Additionally, injured and ill seamen are entitled to maintenance and cure regardless of whether they or the employer are at fault for the injury or illness.

Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend

In Atlantic Sounding Co., Edward Townsend was injured in a fall while working aboard the vessel Motor Tug Thomas, which was owned by Atlantic Sounding. When Townsend sought maintenance and cure from Atlantic Sounding for his injured arm and shoulder, the company denied his request.

Atlantic Sounding then sought a ruling from the court regarding its obligations to pay Townsend maintenance and cure. At the same time, Townsend filed his own suit seeking recovery for several causes of action, including willful failure to pay maintenance and cure, and sought punitive damages for Atlantic Sounding's breach of their duty to pay under general maritime law.

The district court and 11th Circuit Court of Appeals both found that Townsend was entitled to punitive damages for Atlantic Sounding's willful disregard of its obligation to pay him maintenance and cure for his injuries. Atlantic Sounding then petitioned the US Supreme Court for review on the question of whether or not Townsend is entitled to an award of punitive damages.

The Supreme Court's Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Townsend that he was entitled to punitive damages. The Court cited the following reasons for its decision:

  • There is a long tradition of awarding punitive damages at common law when "wanton, willful or outrageous conduct" has been committed
  • Punitive damages also have been long available in federal maritime law cases
  • There is nothing in current maritime law which prevent punitive damages from being awarded in maintenance and cure cases

Atlantic Sounding argued that punitive damages are not available under the Jones Act, a federal statute that provides seaman with a right of recovery for injuries suffered in the course of their employment. Because Townsend brought his claims under both general maritime law and the Jones Act, Atlantic Sounding argued, he should be precluded from collecting them.

The Court, however, rejected this argument, finding that maintenance and cure claims exist in general maritime law and were not created by, nor limited by, the Jones Act. The Court distinguished maintenance and cure claims from wrongful death claims, which do not exist under general maritime law, but only may be pursued under applicable statutes, including the Jones Act. Since maintenance and cure claims are not limited by any federal statute or other general maritime law principle, then there is no legal reason to deny Townsend punitive damages so long as Atlantic Sounding's conduct was wanton, willful or outrageous.


For more information on maintenance and cure or other maritime law questions, contact an experienced attorney today.

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