Punitive damages have been a staple of the law of torts since time immemorial, yet definitive parameters for this remedy remain subject to a “fog of uncertainty” in maritime law. In Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, the United States Supreme Court, through Justice Clarence Thomas, asserted, “Punitive damages have long been an available remedy at common law for wanton, willful, or outrageous conduct.” Citing jurisprudence from the American Colonial Era, in which courts, applying English law, permitted juries to award such damages, the Townsend Court recognized that a “jury’s broad discretion to set damages included the authority to award punitive damages when the circumstances of the case warranted.” Thus, even prior to the ratification of the United States Constitution, it was established law that lower courts had the “power to give damages for more than the injury received. [Such] [d]amages are designed not only as a satisfaction to the injured person, but likewise as a punishment to the guilty, to deter from any such proceeding for the future, and as a proof of the detestation of the jury to the action itself.” The Townsend Court unhesitatingly reaffirmed earlier Supreme Court decisions that had, in turn, recognized that “[p]unitive or ‘exemplary’ damages have long been a part of Anglo-American law.”
Recognizing that “American courts have likewise permitted punitive damages awards in appropriate cases since at least 1784,” the Court in Townsend acknowledged, “By the middle of the 19th century, ‘punitive damages were undoubtedly an established part of the American common law of torts[, and] no particular procedures were deemed necessary to circumscribe a jury’s discretion regarding the award of such damages, or their amount.’” Given that the Court itself had long accepted punitive damages to be permissible as a matter of common law doctrine, the Townsend Court reaffirmed “[t]he general rule that punitive damages were available at common law [and] extended to claims arising under federal maritime law.”
Yet, despite the seeming long-standing existence of punitive damages in maritime law, the continued viability of their efficacy remains subject to litigation. The Supreme Court has yet to decide, for example, whether punitive damages can be assessed vicariously upon a vessel owner; i.e., to what extent a vessel owner must endorse or ratify the egregiously bad conduct of its captain or crew before it can be found answerable for a punitive damages award. The factual circumstances under which a vessel owner might be legally exempt from a claim for punitive damages remains uncertain; in particular, whether a maritime worker, who possesses seaman’s status under the Jones Act and its statutory negligence cause of action, can advance a claim for punitive damages based on the vessel owner’s violation of general maritime law’s duty to warrant a seaworthy vessel. And, in connection with this issue, under what circumstances might nonseamen, including longshoremen and passengers, recover punitive damages despite their not possessing a cause of action based on unseaworthiness? Finally, considerations of due process can affect just how the courts validate the quantum of a verdict awarding punitive damages. These issues continue to await definitive judicial resolution as the post-Townsend legal landscape takes shape.