The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a former seaman injured on the job may sue his ex-employer for refusing to pay his medical bills and maintenance, the Florida Times-Union reported June 26. The ruling means that Eddie Townsend may continue his lawsuit against former employer Atlantic Sounding, including a claim for punitive damages intended to punish serious wrongdoing. In the 5-4 decision, the majority wrote that the Jones Act, which allows people injured in maritime jobs to sue their employers for medical care and replacement wages, allows punitive damages when employers show “willful and wanton disregard” for their obligations.
Townsend was working on a tugboat at the port of Fort Lauderdale when a fallen line knocked him to the deck, breaking his shoulder. When he told his supervisor, he was told he would be fired if he reported the injury. He tried to work the next day but couldn’t, so he reported his injury anyway — and was fired, just as predicted. His employer, Atlantic Sounding, refused to pay his medical bills or maintenance while he recovered, on the grounds that he had left the boat. (Most Florida employers must offer both of these benefits through the Florida workers’ compensation system.) With no health insurance, he wound up living in his car in North Florida. Eventually, he sued Atlantic Sounding.
The Jones Act, formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is a form of workers’ compensation for sailors and others who work in navigable waters. It allows seamen like Townsend, who were injured at work, to sue employers whose carelessness caused or contributed to the accident. All such claimants can claim money to pay their medical bills and living expenses while they cannot work. Federal appeals courts had split over whether they could also claim punitive damages — payments intended to punish and deter lawbreaking — in cases involving injuries and maintenance pay. The Supreme Court resolved that split with last week’s ruling, saying they can.
As a Fort Lauderdale boating accident attorney, I am delighted with this ruling. Firing someone for reporting an accident literally adds insult to injury, and Atlantic Sounding’s actions would have been illegal for most Florida employers. That makes this case extremely appropriate for punitive damages. Thanks to this ruling, Townsend can claim the true cost of his injuries — not just the medical care and reduced wages that would have allowed him to make ends meet while he recovered, but damages for his wrongful firing and the troubles he faced afterward. The ruling doesn’t necessarily mean that Townsend will win his case or collect a large amount of money, but it means that if he does win, he will be able to claim fuller, more appropriate compensation that recognizes Atlantic Sounding’s serious wrongdoing.
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