Washington Law Review

Comment

The Abandoned Wards of Admiralty: The Supreme Court’s Course Change on the Availability of Punitive Damages to Seamen in Unseaworthiness Claims

October 01, 2020 | 95 Wash. L. Rev. 1565

Abstract

This Comment compares Dutra Group v. Batterton and Tabingo v. American Triumph LLC, two significant but contradictory admiralty decisions on the availability of punitive damages in unseaworthiness claims. It argues that the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision in Tabingo—that punitive damages should be permissible in unseaworthiness claims—is far better from both policy and doctrinal standpoints. From a doctrinal perspective, maritime law has traditionally permitted punitive damages in admiralty cases. Therefore, it would have been more appropriate for the Court to adhere to the principle that it is better to allow a remedy in admiralty proceedings so long as an inflexible rule does not prohibit it. From a policy standpoint, employers do not require the same protections as seamen.

This Comment also analyzes how the United States Supreme Court in Batterton confirmed its unwillingness to use its explicit grant of admiralty jurisdiction by rejecting an admiralty remedy because such remedy was not explicitly provided for by Congress. Batterton also reflects the Supreme Court’s shift from considering seamen the wards of admiralty to stating there is no longer any policy need to protect them. The Court abandoned the nearly 200-year-old determination for a weak policy argument with little explanation. The stark implication flowing from this decision is that a cost-benefit analysis for employers now makes it cheaper to kill seamen than to make them sick.

Download Full Comment