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Saturday, September 28, 2019

Ex-Wards of the Admiralty

I'm teaching Admiralty--my favorite course--this semester. This gives me an opportunity to address an important development from a Supreme Court decision earlier this year. In The Dutra Group v. Batterton, the Court held that punitive damages are unavailable in an unseaworthiness action. One passage of Justice Alito's opinion for the Court stated:

Batterton points to the maritime doctrine that encourages special solicitude for the welfare of seamen. But that doctrine has its roots in the paternalistic approach taken toward mariners by 19th century courts. [citations omitted] The doctrine has never been a commandment that maritime law must favor seamen whenever possible. Indeed, the doctrine’s apex coincided with many of the harsh common-law limitations on recovery that were not set aside until the passage of the Jones Act. And, while sailors today face hardships not encountered by those who work on land, neither are they as isolated nor as dependent on the master as their predecessors from the age of sail. 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.  It is not sufficient to overcome the weight of authority indicating that punitive damages are unavailable.

This marks a substantial change for maritime law. For the past two centuries, seaman have been, in the words of Justice Joseph Story, "wards of the admiralty." This was, in part, based on paternalistic stereotypes about sailors, as the Court said. There was also, though, a valid recognition that they deserved more help. The diminution of that idea is in keeping with the ongoing "normalization" of maritime law, by which I mean that its special characteristics are being gradually eroded. In some instances this is a good development and more would be better (such as ending the limitation of liability doctrine). Sometimes, though, treating seamen like other workers just means they are now being treated worse.

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Posted by: | Feb 25, 2020 4:41:02 AM

Admiralty law favors protecting the seaman as a ward of the admiralty ..... That same day, Hapag-Lloyd interpleaded and moved ex parte for an ...

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Courts that view seamen as "wards of the admiralty" consider seamen inca- pable of ...... of the right provided seamen with the actual out-of-pocket ex- penses. 1.

Posted by: Vidmate | Oct 1, 2019 2:08:47 AM

Great post. Fantastic to see discussion of admiralty law and doctrinal, common law of contracts on this blog.

Posted by: anon | Sep 29, 2019 10:24:38 AM

Interesting ruling.But the real issue is the philosophy of that doctrine of " punitive damage". As stated by the dissenting of Justice Ginsburg ( joined by Justice Breyer and Justice Sotomayor ) punitive damages, need to deter for very gross negligence or malice even,risking lives let alone. Here I quote:

The Court observes that a plaintiff may not recover twice for the same injury under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness. Ante, at 9. True enough. But the Court does not explain why a bar to double recovery of compensatory damages should affect the availability of a single award of punitive damages. Notably, punitive damages are not awarded to compensate the plaintiff; their office is to punish the defendant and deter misconduct.

End of quotation:

So, even if special treatment to seamen, is not so warranted this days, has nothing to do with that doctrine ( reigns in common law and tort notwithstanding).

By the way, the ruling itself, can be reached here:



Posted by: El roam | Sep 28, 2019 10:18:07 PM

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