Denial of Maintenance and Cure Benefits



Punitive Damages are Available for Improper Denial of a Seaman’s Maintenance and Cure Benefits

Maritime Law is often seen as one of the most difficult to understand practices of all the legal disciplines. I dedicate much of my time in helping people navigate (pardon the pun) the waters of Maritime Law and where a person’s rights stand once they step offshore. A good example of Maritime Law made easier to understand is in the recent Supreme Court ruling in Atlantic Sounding Company, Inc. v. Townsend, __U.S.__129 S. Ct. 2561 (2009). The United States Supreme Court just held that maritime law allows a seaman to recover punitive damages for his employer’s intentional or willful denial of maintenance and cure. Prior to the decision in Townsend, the federal courts of appeal were arguably split on this thought. Attorney’s fees were often available; however many courts of appeal had concluded that punitive damages were not available. The Supreme Court fixed that in its Townsend decision.

Courts uniformly have illustrated punitive damages as non-pecuniary in general. Many had read Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19,111 S. Ct. 317 (1990) broadly, so as to disqualify the retrieval of non-pecuniary damages by seamen. In Townsend, however, the Court applied a more narrow reading to Miles v. Apex Marine Corp.

Justice Clarence Thomas, on behalf of a five justice majority, stated that BOTH punitive damages and maintenance and cure were traditionally available under maritime law. Further, he wrote that there is no reason to believe that punitive damages could not be imposed for intentional or willful denials of maintenance and cure (despite the scarcity of such awards in case law). Justice Thomas further concluded that the Jones Act added a negligence remedy only to the other traditional remedies under maritime law. Maintenance and cure had already been recognized prior to the Jones Act; thus there was no need to be concerned whether the remedies available for a wrongful denial of maintenance and cure were consistent with those under the Jones Act. The majority did deny the opportunity to reach the question of whether punitive damages were unavailable under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act and thus the Jones Act.

–Charles Herd, The Lanier Law Firm

Charles Herd, of Houston’s Lanier Law Firm, concentrates on Jones Act maritime-related claims, asbestos/products liability cases and commercial matters.

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