Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend

PETITIONER: Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc., et al.
RESPONDENT: Edgar L. Townsend
LOCATION: Weeks Marine Inc

DOCKET NO.: 08-214
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 557 US 404 (2009)
GRANTED: Nov 03, 2008
ARGUED: Mar 02, 2009
DECIDED: Jun 25, 2009

ADVOCATES:
David W. McCreadie - argued the cause for the petitioners
Gj Rod Sullivan Jr. - on behalf of the respondent

Facts of the case

In July 2005, Edgar Townsend was allegedly injured while working aboard the tug boat Thomas. His employer, Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. sought declaratory judgment in a federal district court to determine its obligations toward him. Mr. Townsend counterclaimed. In part, he alleged arbitrary and willful failure to pay maintenance and cure for his injuries, and sought punitive damages. Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. motioned to dismiss the request for punitive damages. The district court denied the motion, but allowed for interlocutory appeal.

The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed. The court held it was bound by its prior decision in Hines v. J.A. LaPorte, Inc. There, it concluded a seaman may recover punitive damages when an employer arbitrarily and willfully refuses to pay maintenance and cure for his injuries. It reasoned that the Supreme Court's decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. did not apply. In that case, the Court held that recovery for "non-pecuniary loss in the wrongful death of a seaman was not available under general maritime law". The court of appeals reasoned that Miles was not "clearly on point" to the facts in Mr. Townsend's case.

Question

May a seaman seek punitive damages when his employer arbitrarily and willfully refuses to pay maintenance and cure for his injuries?

Media for Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 02, 2009 in Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 25, 2009 in Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has the opinion of the Court today in case 08-214, Atlantic Sounding Company versus Townsend.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and I'm sure it's one of much greater interest than the previous case.

Respondent, Edgar L. Townsend, was injured while serving as a crew member on the Motor Tug Thomas, no relation.

This tug is a vessel owned by petitioners.

Respondent filed a suit against petitioners under the Jones Act and general maritime law contending among other things that petitioners' improperly denied him maintenance and cure.

Maintenance and cure is the term used to describe the longstanding obligation of vessel owners to provide food, lodging, and medical treatment to injured crewmen.

Respondent sought punitive damages for the denial of maintenance and cure.

Petitioners sought to dismiss the punitive damages claim arguing that this Court's decision in Miles versus Apex Marine Corporation limits recovery for the denial of maintenance and cure to remedies available under the Jones Act and that punitive damages are not available under that statute.

The District Court denied the motion to dismiss finding that punitive damages are available under general maritime law and authorized an interlocutory appeal.

The Court of Appeals affirmed holding that it was bound by certain precedent to permit claims for punitive damages for a willful failure to provide maintenance and cure.

In an opinion filed today with the clerk, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.

Punitive damages have long been available at common law and this tradition extends to maritime cases or maritime claims.

There is no evidence that claims for maintenance and cure were excluded from this general admiralty rule.

To the contrary, the pre-Jones Act evidence indicates that punitive damages were available to such claim -- for such claims under the appropriate factual circumstances.

Moreover, the enactment of the Jones Act in 1920 did not abridge the traditional remedies afforded under general maritime law for maintenance and cure.

We have repeatedly held that the Act was intended to supplement rather than restrict traditional remedies.

Finally, this Court's decision in Miles does not limit the remedies of this general maritime claim to those remedies provided by the Jones Act.

In Miles, the Court restricted memories -- remedies for wrongful death to those that Congress had statutorily provided in wrongful death actions.

But the Court did so because wrongful death actions were not historically recognized under general maritime claims or maritime law.

Here in contrast, the cause of action for maintenance and cure and the remedy of punitive damages were available long before the Jones Act was passed.

Miles does not require the Court to alter the historically availability -- the historical availability of punitive damages for the willful or wanton failure to comply with the duty of maintenance and cure.

Justice Alito has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice, Justice Scalia, and Justice Kennedy have joined.