A landmark case is set to unfold as seaman Edgar L. Townsend pursues punitive damages for the willful refusal of his employers, Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc., and Weeks Marine, Inc., to provide maintenance and cure, a comprehensive compensation package covering medical care and wages for injured seamen. This case, “Townsend v. Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc.,” poses a crucial question: can a seaman recover punitive damages for the denial of maintenance and cure? The Eleventh Circuit affirms this right, creating a circuit split that awaits resolution by the Supreme Court.

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Edgar L. Townsend, a seaman on the Motor Tug Thomas, alleges injuries sustained while working on the ship due to his employer’s negligence. His employers’ refusal to supply maintenance and cure led Townsend to seek punitive damages, a claim contested by Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc., and Weeks Marine, Inc. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision, anchored in its precedent, conflicts with other circuits and sets the stage for a Supreme Court ruling.

Legal Context:

The Jones Act, a cornerstone of maritime law, grants seamen the right to seek compensation for injuries caused by employer negligence. In the quest for consistency, the Supreme Court, in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., emphasized uniformity in maritime law, specifically concerning wrongful death actions. This precedent raises the question of whether punitive damages are recoverable for the denial of maintenance and cure, a distinct issue not directly addressed by the Jones Act or Miles.

Circuit Split:

The Eleventh Circuit, relying on its precedent in Hines v. J.A. LaPorte, Inc., asserts that punitive damages are recoverable in maintenance and cure cases. In contrast, the Second, Third, and Ninth Circuits adhere to the Miles uniformity principle, limiting damages to pecuniary losses. This circuit split compels the Supreme Court to clarify the scope of remedies available to injured seamen.


Weeks Marine contends that Miles establishes a uniform rule disallowing punitive damages for non-pecuniary losses in maritime actions. They argue that the Jones Act and DOHSA, designed for consistency, preclude the extension of punitive damages to maintenance and cure claims. Conversely, Townsend argues that Miles is limited to wrongful death actions and doesn’t preclude punitive damages for maintenance and cure, an ancient maritime right distinct from wrongful death.

Stakeholder Perspectives:

The Sailors’ Union of the Pacific supports Townsend, emphasizing maintenance and cure as an “ancient duty” crucial for seamen’s well-being. Cruise Lines International Association, while acknowledging the duty, expresses concern about potential abuse and chilling effects on valid defenses if punitive damages become a remedy.


The Supreme Court’s decision in Townsend v. Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. will shape the landscape of maritime law, determining whether punitive damages are within the ambit of remedies for the denial of maintenance and cure. The tension between consistency, the ancient duty of shipowners, and seamen’s rights underscores the complexity of this case, promising far-reaching implications for the maritime industry and the legal framework governing it.