June 25, 2009

Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend: U.S. Supreme Court Holds That Punitive Damages Are Available in Maritime Cases

In an unusual 5-4 grouping, Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for the court with Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg and Breyer joining, holding that because punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law, and because neither Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., nor the Jones Act altered this understanding, punitive damages for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation remain available as a matter of general maritime law. Justice Alito dissented, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Kennedy, arguing that punitive damages are not available under maritime law. On first impression, unlike the Exxon Shipping case, it does not appear that this case will likely have much impact beyond maritime law.