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South Florida Jones Act Lawyers Explain When Seamen Can Sue For Punitive Damages

The Jones Act (“the Act”) is a federal law passed by Congress in 1920 designed to protect sailors who suffered injuries or fell ill during a voyage. The Act gives seamen an opportunity to sue their employers for damages if they are injured due to their employer’s negligence. The common law rules of maritime law obligate a vessel’s owner to care for and provide for the safe passage and medical attention for a sick or injured seaman. Furthermore, maritime law provides for the care of seaman from harm caused by ships that were not seaworthy. The injured seaman has an option, therefore, to bring a suit in admiralty or under the Jones Act. In certain circumstances, the sailor has the opportunity to seek punitive damages.

As Miami Jones Act attorneys we have seen cases like the case of Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend. This case originated in Miami and made its way to the United States Supreme Court. The question in Atlantic Sounding was whether a sailor who suffered injuries during a voyage could sue his employer for punitive damages for a willful failure of his employer for refusing to pay for the seaman’s maintenance and cure. In this case, the seaman fell on a steel deck while working as a deckhand on a tugboat. The seaman injured his arm and shoulder in the fall. The employer refused to pay maintenance and cure as provided for by maritime law and terminated the seaman’s employment. The seaman filed sued the tugboat company in United States District Court in Miami. The case then went to the United States Supreme Court for a final decision.

The Supreme Court ruled that seaman may sue for punitive damages for the boat owner’s willful failure to provide maintenance and cure for its employees. There is a long tradition in American law, dating back to English law, that plaintiffs can receive punitive damages for wrongs involving more than mere negligence. The history of admiralty law in the U.S. suggests that punitive damages are available to seaman as well. The quandary our courts was whether the Jones Act revoked those long-standing rules of admiralty law. The Supreme Court said that the Act does not prevent punitive damages for willful failure to provide maintenance and cure.

In United States Eleventh Circuit, of which Florida is a member, willful in the context of maintenance and cure has a precise definition. To prove a ship owner willfully refused to pay an injured sailor maintenance and cure damages, the injured mariner must demonstrate that the boat owner was slow investigating the sailor’s claims of injury. Alternatively, the injured sailor must show that the owner terminated the sailor’s employment because he hired an attorney or refused to accept the settlement offer, or that the owner failed to reinstate benefits upon a recent diagnosis.

A sailor wounded by the unseaworthiness of a ship may be able to sue for punitive damages. A ship’s owner is strictly liable for damages caused by the unseaworthiness of the vessel. Under general maritime law, the injured sailor can sue for compensatory damages. The sailor might win punitive damages if he proves that the ship owner intentionally denied the sailor access to a seaworthy boat or other acts of intentional wrongdoing or the plaintiff otherwise shows “willful, wanton, or outrageous conduct” on behalf of the ship owner.

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Wolf v. McCULLEY MARINE SERVICES, INC., Dist. Court, MD Florida 2012

Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend, 129 S. Ct. 2561 – Supreme Court 2009


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