Essentially, seamen may now officially seek and potentially obtain punitive damages against shipowners who fail to provide maintenance and cure, an ancient remedy of living expenses and healthcare owed an injured seafarer.
I worked intimately with the somewhat tortuous case law involved in the case/issue earlier this spring in the John R. Brown Maritime Moot Court competition in Charleston, South Carolina.
While I ultimately argued in favor of punitive damages at trial, I helped write our team's brief arguing against the availability of punitive damages. I must say, I thought the argument that had prevailed in the 11th Circuit below - that punitive damages were not available to seamen under the general maritime law in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Miles v. Apex Marine in the early 1990s - would have prevailed in the high court.
It's interesting to see Thomas writing a majority opinion with Alito in the minority, the latter joined by the other three conservative justices. An unusual split, which is always infinitely more intriguing to me than a typical split.
For any of you maritime law junkies out there, my guess is that, in a topic with such a long, vague, obscure, and twisting jurisprudential history as punitive damages in maintenance and cure, Thomas latched onto very old precedents like The Amiable Nancy (and other Justice Story cases from the privateering and prize days of the early 1800s) and later 1800s cases like The Scotland. The liberal wing of the court likely grasped on Vaughn and it's immediate progeny, having a natural inclination to support the cause of a punitive remedy for an injured seamen. And the conservative dissenters likely see Miles as a definitive bar to recovery, relying heavily on the reasoning in the 5th Circuit's Guevara opinion.
But that's just my guess, not having read the opinions yet. I may post additional thoughts after I've digested them.
What is the ultimate significance of this case, though, as I see it now? It stands to open the door (some would say floodgate) to additional suits for punitive damages in maritime law - something that has not been definitively available before, although the Exxon Valdez case permitted punitives in a related, but distinct context.