U.S. high court sides with seaman in Jones Act case

By Chris Rizo | Jun 25, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court building

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -Seamen injured on the job may sue for punitive damages if their employers refuse to pay for medical care and time off, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The high court ruled in favor of Edgar Townsend, a crew member aboard the Motor Tug Thomas, who injured his arm and shoulder on the boat's steel deck in 2005.

He originally sued under the Jones Act after the boat's owner, Atlantic Sounding Co., said it would not pay for his medical care and time off.

In writing for the 5-4 majority, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas said Townsend has the right to pursue a punitive damages claim.

"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," Thomas wrote. "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."

At trial, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled in favor of Townsend. The company appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In August 2007, a three-judge appeals court panel agreed to allow the punitive damages claim.

Atlantic Sounding, in its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, said the appeals court's holding conflicts with four other circuits and two state courts of last resort that decided the same issue.

The case is Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 08-214.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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