So it is with some interest that I learn the Ninth Circuit finds that punitive damages are available for wanton unseaworthiness. The opinion is a careful one: the panel found that the Ninth Circuit used to allow punitive damages for wanton unseaworthiness, that its prior case hasn't been overruled, and therefore it's still good law. This sets up a circuit split with the Fifth Circuit, which means the 9th will likely look at this en banc, then maybe it'll go to the Supreme Court.
The significance of whether punitives are available is all over the above posts, so I'll leave that be. And this case is covered broadly, so I'll leave that be too. I will, instead, offer a prediction:
This likelier than not gets reversed by the Supreme Court. Miles v. Apex, which held that nonpecuniary damages are unavailable in a death claim, was a unanimous decision, based on statutory interpretation. The Court held that Congress is entitled to grant X and Y for a remedy, and when Congress does that, the courts aren't free to add Z. The absence of Z from the statute means Congress didn't want Z as a remedy. "Oh, but that's the Jones Act, and unseaworthiness is a creature of federal common law." Yeah but the Miles court addressed that:
It would be inconsistent with our place in the constitutional scheme were we to sanction more expansive remedies in a judicially created cause of action in which liability is without fault than Congress has allowed in cases of death resulting from negligence.
To decide that punitive damages are available for wanton unseaworthiness, you have to decide that the 5-4 Atlantic Sounding v Townsend court overruled the unanimous Miles court, while saying it wasn't overruling anything. Or, you could use a simpler explanation: M&C are different - very different - from negligence and unseaworthiness. Negligence and unseaworthiness are reasonably similar. Their remedies overlap damn near entirely. M&C is categorically different. So it makes sense to have different remedies for M&C than there are for negligence, but it doesn't make sense to have different remedies for negligence than there are for unseaworthiness.
I think the latter explanation is the cleaner one, and the easier to understand. I don't think this particular Supreme Court is likely to expand a seaman's remedies. Though promise a lot of ink will be spilled before it's said and done.