The US Supreme Court granted certiorari in its first maritime case in some time: The Dutra Group v. Batterton. At issue: whether there’s a cause of action under general maritime law for punitive damages in the event of, for lack of a better term, wanton / gross unseaworthiness. The Fifth Circuit says “no.” The Ninth Circuit says “yes.” The Supreme Court will decide.
But if you’re reading this, you want to know the answer. What’s the Supreme Court going to do? The safe money is on “side with the Fifth.” First, +/- 65% of Supreme Court cases reverse the appellate court - otherwise, why take the case in the first place? Second, you have a pretty conservative Court here, and “no punitive damages” is the more conservative position, along with “defer to Congress.” It gets spotty, though, because limits on punitive damages are couched in due process, and it is not often considered a conservative position to have an expansive definition of due process.
More analysis: it used to be that there were two and a half pillars of federal maritime common law. First: uniformity. Second: Congress is presumed to legislate knowing what the law is. The half: deference to Congress.
That gives you Miles v. Apex, where the Court said "Congress did not allow punitive damages in the Jones Act, and we sail in occupied waters (lol). We won’t go beyond what Congress allowed for Jones Act negligence, or for general maritime law unseaworthiness.” All two-and-a-half objectives accomplished.
Then Exxon v. Baker: in a pure general maritime law claim, there is a claim for punitive damages because Congress hasn’t said “no.” One point away from uniformity, because it’s weird to give everybody with a general maritime law claim a shot at punitive damages except for Jones Act seamen (and others, like Longshoremen, whose remedies are creatures of statute.)
Then Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend: Jones Act seamen do have a claim for punitive damages: not for negligence or unseaworthiness, but for arbitrary and capricious denial of maintenance and cure. The rationale for the 5-4 decision: there were punitive damages before the Jones Act for arbitrary and capricious denial of M&C, so that survives after. Another point away from uniformity.
Now Batterton. If gross unseaworthiness isn’t materially different from gross negligence under the Jones Act, then the nearly-discredited uniformity idea comes roaring back and there’s no cause of action for gross unseaworthiness. This makes sense: maintenance and cure are real different from Jones Act negligence or GML unseaworthiness, but unseaworthiness and negligence are real close. It makes sense to treat them as overlapping in remedies. But if unseaworthiness is materially different from negligence, then there’s every reason to have different remedies, and a gross unseaworthiness remedy survives. This also makes sense, because they have, among other things, different causation standards. What about hoary history? That cuts both ways, as described in elaborate detail in the Fifth Circuit’s McBride decision.
So at last, the prediction: I don’t think it’s accidental that the most conservative judges on the Fifth Circuit found no punitive damages for wanton unseaworthiness. I don’t think it’s accidental that the less conservative judges dissented. I also don’t think it’s accidental that the Ninth Circuit panel that found wanton unseaworthiness was mostly liberal (a Clinton appointee from Montana, a George HW Bush appointee from Alaska, and an Obama appointee from California). Furthermore, the Batterton decision is narrow. It doesn’t say that “we like punitive damages.” It just says “Miles isn’t completely on point, so our precedent survives Miles.” TheSupreme Court is conservative, with a libertarian bent. My money, if I were a betting man, would be on the conservative side winning out. There are three easy votes for “no punitives:” Roberts, Alito, and Kavanaugh. Everybody else is a maybe, and two maybes out of six isn’t a lot.