Punitive Damages and Maritime Law

If you are injured at sea, you may think that regular laws that will apply to you, and your rights to recovery would be the same as if you were injured on land. In fact, this is not true at all. As our Florida cruise ship accident attorneys have discussed before in this blog, there are many nuanced differences between maritime law and state laws. One such difference has to do with punitive damages.

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What Are Punitive Damages?

As the name suggests, punitive damages are not designed to compensate an injury victim at all—the goal of punitive damages is to punish the negligent party for behavior so outrageous or unacceptable that an extra, often large, monetary punishment is necessary. Like a criminal law sentence, there is also an element of deterrent involved—other companies that see severe economic penalties assessed against a wrongdoer may be more likely to modify their behavior and take measures to protect their patrons or customers.

Punitive damages are controversial. Many of the highest jury verdict awards in the country stem from punitive damage awards. Because of the nature of punitive damage cases, a jury may be willing to assess very large damage awards. And as a result, the media spins those verdicts in ways that create negative public perception about punitive damages.

Almost every state allows an injured victim to obtain punitive damages, although every state may have different requirements that must be proven for victims to get them. In Florida, under state law, an injured victim must make a showing to the judge in a separate hearing as to why they should be allowed to plead for punitive damages. It’s a tough burden, but at least the right is there.

Punitive Damages and the Law of the Sea

Maritime law is different. Maritime law is exclusively federal law, according to the constitution. And Congress has very specific laws about what kind of claims can be made and what kind of damages can be recovered in maritime law. Most federal courts won’t allow a party to obtain damages that aren’t expressly allowed in federal statute—and that includes punitive damages.

At least one court has recently ruled that because the laws that allow a party to recover for death on the high seas don’t specifically allow for punitive damages, they can’t be awarded. The problem is that before federal laws allowing injured victims to recover damages existed, there was no such thing as a wrongful death claim. Because a wrongful death claim now exists by statute, but the statute doesn’t allow for punitive damages, the court reasoned that punitive damages couldn’t be awarded.

Although the case is a wrongful death case, it’s likely that the prohibition against punitive damages would apply even in injury cases, where the victim did not die.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that an injured party or the relatives of an injured party cannot recover damages at all—it just bars punitive damages. Fortunately, even in state law where such a right exists, most cases won’t involve punitive damages anyway, lessening the impact of the bar on recovering them for victims.

Maritime law isn’t just state injury law at sea. It can involve complex federal laws and subtle differences. Talk to the Florida cruise ship accident attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. for a free consultation to discuss your rights.

Photo Credit: vgm8383 via Compfight cc

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