"Bizarre Disparities": Miles v. Apex Marine Lives On
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
It was a privilege addressing the Southeastern Admiralty Law Institute this past Saturday at its annual seminar, held this year in New Orleans. My subject was the United States Supreme Court's decision in Dutra Group v. Batterton, issued just one week ago. In Batterton, the Court held that an injured seaman cannot recover punitive damages based on the unseaworthiness of a vessel. Among other things, Justice Samuel Alito pointed out that, under Miles v. Apex Marine, 498 U.S. 19 (1990), it was plain that the estate of a deceased seaman could not recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness. Allowing an injured seaman to recover punitive damages when the survivors of a deceased seaman could not would, according to Justice Alito, create a "bizarre disparit[y]" in the law.
It so happens that on Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit handed down Eslinger v. Celebrity Cruise Lines. In Eslinger, the court held that the spouse of a passenger injured at sea aboard a cruise vessel could not recover for loss of consortium (a remedy for the loss of affection, services and so on that one spouse suffers when the other is physically injured). It cited Miles for the proposition that a seaman's survivors could not recover loss of society (similar to loss of consortium, but applicable to the loss of family members other than spouses). If survivors of a seaman can't recover for what are essentially emotional rather than "pecuniary" losses, why should the spouse of an injured passenger be able to do so? Eslinger does not cite Batterton, but the cases are consistent.
Eslinger also cites In re Amtrak Sunset Ltd. Train Crash in Bayou Canot, Ala., 121 F.3d 1421 (11 Cir. 1993) with approval. Amtrak holds that punitive damages are seldom, if ever, available in maritime death and injury cases. After the Supreme Court's 2009 decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), some courts and commentators had questioned whether Amtrak was still good law. Batterton and Eslinger signal to the contrary.
In short, punitive damages and other "non-pecuniary" relief, such as loss of society and consortium, appear to be under renewed threat in maritime death and injury cases. It is clear that punitive damages remain available in some contexts: pollution-related economic loss (Exxon Shipping v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471 (2008)) and the willful or reckless failure to provide the traditional remedy of "maintenance and cure" to an ailing or injured seaman (Townsend). At the same time, punitive damages are clearly unavailable in seamen's death and injury claims and maybe also claims by non-seamen. Various factors, including circumstances and location of a maritime accident, may bear on whether punitive damages are ultimately available. It seems that, no matter where the line is drawn, the maritime law of punitive damages will involve some "bizarre disparities."