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Injured seaman entitled to damages for failure to pay benefits: Supreme Court

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that an injured seaman may recover punitive damages for the willful failure of his employer to pay a basic living allowance, wages that he otherwise would have earned, and benefits to cover medical expenses, known as "maintenance and cure." The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit had upheld [opinion, PDF] a lower court ruling that Townsend could recover the damages. Atlantic Sounding, the petitioner in the case, contended that the applicable statute, the Jones Act [42 USC § 688 text], does not provide for such expenses. The Court disagreed, and, in affirming that opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote:

Because punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law, and because nothing in the Jones Act altered this understanding, such damages for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation should remain available in the appropriate case as a matter of general maritime law. Limiting recovery for maintenance and cure to whatever is permitted by the Jones Act would give greater preemptive effect to the Act than is required by its text ... or any of this Court's other decisions interpreting the statute.

Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.

Petitioners in the case had relied on Supreme Court precedent established in 1990 in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. [opinion text] to argue that the Jones Act never allows for punitive damages. However, Miles dealt only with a wrongful death suit, not a maintenance and cure claim. Thursday's ruling resolves a circuit split, with the First, Fifth, and Eleventh Circuit Courts awarding punitive damages and the Second, Third, and Ninth Circuit Courts awarding only pecuniary damages under Miles.

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