Exxon Discussion Board: Maritime Law, the Courts and Congress
The following is a part of our Exxon Discussion Board series. John Paul Jones is a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who specializes in admiralty law.
Disclosure is due. I write by invitation. Previously, I wrote for myself and other admiralty law professors a brief amicus curiae urging the Court to grant cert. in this case and decide the questions of maritime law treated so summarily below. With no agreement on what the answers should be, our group did not offer a brief on the merits. (The answer to the most important question presented remains uncertain as a result of the Court's even division.) Sometime after our brief was submitted, I was hired for a panel mooting Mr. Dellinger [who represented the petitioners] in anticipation of the oral argument.
This case brought to the Court a narrow wedge from a larger pie of claimants, that is, commercial fishermen complaining of lost income in the aftermath of the spill. It was therefore exclusively a case about financial injury. Leaving aside policy preferences for small business or large corporations, that a legal limit might be imposed on the forced transfer of wealth in excess of compensation from one party earning a livelihood to another does not strike me as unjust per se, but rather ordinary commercial law or market regulation. Reasonable people equally informed may differ, and have, on whether this particular case is the stereotype from which to derive a limit for general application in cases of this type, or else extraordinary and therefore to be treated that way.
As a rule, maritime law does not allow compensatory damages for lost future income. That rule itself is controversial. But commercial fishermen are treated exceptionally anyway. Thus, as a matter governed by maritime law, even an award of compensatory damages in this case was debatable and special, so limiting the maximum award for punitive damages on top doesn't seem all that dramatic. Also, there is plenty of precedent in maritime law for limiting compensatory damages owed by a ship owner to something well short of full compensation, so limiting punitive damages after full compensation is not all that shocking in context. I favor the view that Congress should not be presumed the exclusive or even the primary source of new maritime law, especially about things that have so far failed to provoke congressional action, so I am not persuaded that it was an abuse of discretion for the Court to propose this new rule for maritime law, when Congress is free to supersede at any time.
Trial by jury is not the norm for cases within the admiralty jurisdiction of federal courts. In this case, a jury participated because plaintiffs invoked diversity jurisdiction. Where that invocation would lead ordinarily to application of forum state law according to the rule of Erie Railroad v. Tompkins, another rule, with exceptions not relevant here, is that maritime law governs whenever admiralty jurisdiction would exist, invoked or not. The opinion for the Court in this case relies heavily on research about punitive damage awards that I suppose does not distinguish cases in which a jury took part. By the same token, the opinion by Justice Stevens relies on a pattern of prior decisions in which "abuse of discretion" was applied to police awards against excessiveness, but I do not suppose that Justice Stevens isolated cases in which a jury took part.
I would be very sorry if the Court in some future case ruled that maritime law does not generally allow the award of punitive damages from a ship owner vicariously liable for qualifying misconduct by a ship's captain. Certainly a case arising from privateering operations ought not to form the basis for such a rule applicable outside that special context. There were present in case of The Charming Betsy national security concerns that are now attended to in other ways, and Justice Story's opinion responds to those concerns, albeit without much explanation. For whom he was writing at the time, certainly, they would have loomed large enough without much being said.