Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend

Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend

Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued March 2, 2009
Decided June 25, 2009
Full case name Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc., et al., Petitioners v. Edgar L. Townsend
Docket nos. 08-214
Citations 557 U.S. 404 (more)
129 S. Ct. 2561; 174 L. Ed. 2d 382; 2009 U.S. LEXIS 4732; 77 U.S.L.W. 4603; 29 I.E.R. Cas. (BNA) 385; 2009 AMC 1521; 21 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 1004
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Thomas, joined by Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
Dissent Alito, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy

Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States holding that a seaman may recover punitive damages from his employer for failure to pay maintenance and cure. Townsend reversed a line of cases, starting with Guevara v. Maritime Overseas Corp. in the 5th Circuit (New Orleans), that restricted damages in maritime personal injury cases only to "pecuniary" damages. Consequently, a seaman can now recover both attorney's fees and punitive damages for the willful and wanton refusal of a shipowner to provide medical care to a seaman injured on the job. The Court's 5-4 opinion was delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The Court explained that Congress never used the words "pecuniary" or "non-pecuniary" to describe the damages available for personal injuries (injuries not causing death) under either the Jones Act or the Federal Employers Liability Act. Congress merely said "damages". Hence any limitation on those damages to "pecuniary damages" was a creation of the Courts, not Congress. The Court stated that it "will not attribute words to Congress that Congress did not say."


Some legal scholars believe that Atlantic Soundings v Townsend will result in the end of the Miles Uniformity Doctrine, a doctrine developed in the 5th Circuit which says that all damages, both in maritime personal injury and wrongful death cases, must contain the same uniform elements, and must exclude loss of society, loss of consortium, mental anguish, pre-death pain and suffering and other damages described as "non-pecuniary."

External links

  • 08-214 Full text of the opinion courtesy of