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United States Supreme Court Cites Tulane Maritime Law Journal

September 10, 2009

The United States Supreme Court cited the Tulane Maritime Law Journal in its majority opinion in the significant maritime case of Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, a 5-4 decision handed down on June 25, 2009.

The case, which originated in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, raised the complicated question of whether punitive damages are available to seamen in instances where shipowners willfully and wantonly fail to provide maintenance and cure, an ancient remedy of medical care and lodging owed to all seamen. 

In the majority opinion, Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Stevens, Breyer, Souter, and Ginsburg, cited a 1996 Tulane Maritime Law Journal piece by Paul S. Edelman. The majority agreed with the thrust of Edelman’s argument in his piece, Guevara v. Maritime Overseas Corp.: Opposing the Decision, 20 Tul. Mar. L. J. 349 (1996). Essentially, the court concurred with Edelman’s characterization of various damages given in historic maritime cases as substantively “punitive” in nature even though the damages were not explicitly referred to as “punitive damages” in the cases. 

Using this interpretation of historic maritime cases, Justice Thomas held that punitive damages are available to injured seamen where a vessel owner fails to provide maintenance and cure. Justice Alito wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy and Scalia.

Brad Vogel, Editor in Chief of the Tulane Maritime Law Journal, contacted Mr. Edelman to congratulate him on the good news. 

“He answered the phone at his office, and he seemed delighted,” Vogel said. “I imagine it’s hard not to be when you’ve not only been vindicated by the Supreme Court, but cited as well.”

Edelman is presently of counsel at Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, a New York law firm where he made partner in 1953 after graduating from Harvard Law School. He submitted the work cited by the high court to the Tulane Maritime Law Journal as part of a point-counterpoint installment in the Journal after the Fifth Circuit’s 1995 en banc decision in Guevara v. Maritime Overseas Corp. held punitive damages were not available in maintenance and cure actions.

The Atlantic Sounding decision is significant in that it resolved a tangled circuit split over the availability of punitive damages in maintenance and cure actions. Punitive damages typically are not available in most facets of maritime law, and the ruling generates a number of questions about what other aspects of maritime law might be reshaped in the wake of Atlantic Sounding.

Vogel noted that the Winter 2009 edition of the Journal will contain an article by Professor Rod Sullivan, who argued Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend before the Supreme Court on behalf of the prevailing side. Professor Sullivan’s piece will assess the state of punitive damages in maritime law in the wake of the decision.

“We’re extraordinarily excited about being cited by the Supreme Court over the summer,” Vogel said.  “The Journal staff is honored to be a part of the scholarly process of clarifying and shaping maritime law.”


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