An injured maritime worker seeking compensation normally has two courses of action:
- If he meets the legal definition of a seaman or crew member, he can sue his employer for negligence under the Jones Act.
- The injured seaman can also file a claim alleging that the vessel was unseaworthy and that an unsafe work environment led to his injury.
Under the Jones Act and the unseaworthiness laws, the seaman or crew member can recover damages for pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages and loss of earning capacity. In addition to these damages, the seaman or crew member could seek punitive damages.
Unlike the two courses of action described above, awards of punitive damages are not meant to compensate the plaintiff, but rather to punish defendants and reform them. Ship owners are required to pay the medical and living expenses of injured seamen and crew members until they reach maximum medical improvement. This law is known as "maintenance and cure".
"Punitive damages" describes a special type of civil damages. Such damages are awarded to a seaman or crew member when a court seeks to punish the defendant for gross negligence or reckless behavior.
In a Jones Act claim or an unseaworthiness claim, the dollar amount of an award is based on the damages suffered by the seaman or crew member. These damages cover pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages and loss of earning capacity. However, punitive damages are not meant to compensate the seaman but to inflict financial pain on the defendant.
When a court wants to punish a defendant or send a clear message to the industry as a whole, it will award the plaintiff a large sum based on how much the defendant is worth and how badly the defendant has behaved during the case.
For example, if it comes to light that the defendant deliberately failed to pay for an injured seaman’s medical and living expenses or its failure to provide adequate and immediate medical care substantially worsened the seaman’s medical condition, the court may award substantial punitive damages to the plaintiff to punish the defendant.
When it comes to maintenance and cure claims, the recent United States Supreme Court ruling in the case of Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend clears the way for seamen and crew members to pursue punitive damages in their cases. Punitive damages may be awarded if the plaintiff proves that the defendant did not meet his obligations to provide and pay reasonable medical care and living expenses or terminated maintenance and cure payments prematurely or without justification.
The Jones Act and the unseaworthiness laws give injured seamen the right to sue their employers for negligence and dangerous conditions aboard the ships, but whether the plaintiff can seek punitive damages at the same time depends on the situation. It is more common to award punitive damages in maintenance and cure claims. It is important to emphasize that punitive damages are not meant to compensate the injured party but rather to inflict financial punishment on those defendants who demonstrate gross negligence or recklessly dodge their responsibilities.