I'm a regular worker on a commercial vessel, for ex: a towboat, and I was hurt on the job. Is my work-related injury covered by workers' compensation?
No. As opposed to the majority of workers in the U.S., when a maritime worker who is a regular crewman of a vessel in navigation, a worker called a "seaman," is injured on the job, federal law, a statute called the Jones Act, governs the worker's right to compensation for his or her injury.
What is the Jones Act?
Congress passed this special federal law to protect vessel crewmen due to the dangers of working aboard ship. Under the Jones Act, a vessel crewmember, or seaman, injured on the job can file a lawsuit seeking to recover, among other things, his or her past and future lost wages and benefits, past and future medical expenses, past and future pain and suffering, and past and future loss of enjoyment of life.
Do I have to prove my employer was negligent in my Jones Act case?
Generally, yes. Unlike "no fault" workers' compensation laws, the vessel crewmember in his or her Jones Act case must prove that his employer was negligent - in other words the employer failed to provide a reasonably safe place to work. In a Jones Act case, however, the burden of proof the seaman has to shoulder is less than in a typical non-Jones Act negligence case, such as cases involving a slip and fall on a sidewalk or a car accident. This is often described as a "featherweight" standard.
What happens if I contributed to causing my injury?
Under the Jones Act, even if the seaman contributed to causing his or her injuries, the seaman is not precluded from recovering damages. Rather, any award of damages will be proportionately reduced by the percentage of the seaman's negligence. Lawyers call this "comparative negligence" or "comparative responsibility."
What other claims can a regular crewmember, or "seaman," aboard a commercial vessel bring in a lawsuit if they are injured?
In addition to a claim for "negligence" under the Jones Act, a seaman has two other claims which are routinely brought, both of which are non-statutory and thus instead arise under judge-made law, called the "general maritime law." These claims are (1) a claim for unseaworthiness and (2) a claim for maintenance and cure.
What's an unseaworthiness claim?
An unseaworthiness claim is one which can only be brought by a "seaman." It is brought against the owner or operator of the vessel upon which the seaman was hurt. To win this claim, the seaman only has to prove that the vessel or its appurtenances were unseaworthy and that the unseaworthy condition caused or contributed to cause the accident. A vessel is "unseaworthy" when it or its appurtenances are not reasonably fit for their intended purpose.
What's a maintenance and cure claim?
Under the general maritime law, a seaman who is injured or becomes ill while in service of his or her ship is entitled to reasonable and necessary medical care paid for by his or her employer until they have reached maximum medical improvement, or are "cured." This is "cure." Seamen, while they are convalescing and until they reach maximum medical improvement are also entitled to reasonable and necessary living expenses. This is called "maintenance." If an employer willfully and wantonly disregards its maintenance and cure obligation, the seaman can recover the maintenance and cure, attorney's fees spent in securing the maintenance and cure, and, the U.S. Supreme Court held recently, punitive damages. To win a maintenance and cure claim, the seaman does not have to prove the employer was at fault, because fault, and issues of negligence, unseaworthiness, and causation, have nothing to do with these claims
How long can I wait before filing my maritime personal injury case?
The statute of limitations, which sets the deadline for when you have to file your lawsuit, is three (3) years under the Jones Act, and most courts apply this same three-year period for claims for unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure, although there are limited exceptions to this rule. One exception is called the "discovery doctrine," such as when an injury or disease takes years to show up. In this situation, the seaman must file his or her lawsuit within three years from the date he or she knew or should have known in the exercise of reasonable care that the occupational disease was related to their working for the maritime employer.
I'm a seaman. Can my spouse file a loss of consortium claim if I am injured?
Generally, no. Most courts say such "loss of consortium" claims are not allowed in seaman suits against employers and vessels they are working on.
Can a lawsuit be filed under the Jones Act on behalf of a deceased seaman?
Yes. The Jones Act permits the personal representative of the deceased seaman to file both a survival action and wrongful death action against the maritime employer.
Besides the above, can seamen and others who are involved in maritime accidents bring any other claims?
Yes. Seamen can bring a general maritime law, or judge-made law, negligence claim against those whose fault caused their accident and who were not their employer. Non-seamen, meaning those involved in a maritime accident but who are not regular crewmembers of commercial vessels, can also bring general maritime law negligence claims. Longshoremen can bring workers' compensation claims against their employer under the federal Longshore and Harborworkers' Compensation Act, and can bring a negligence claim against owners/operators of vessels involved in their accident. Product liability claims are also commonly allowed under admiralty and maritime law.
Does federal admiralty and maritime law apply to the operation of my pleasure boat?
It depends. If your boat is operated on a "navigable waterway of the United States," such as the Monongahela, Allegheny, or Ohio River, an ocean or bay, or one of the Great Lakes, then the answer is "yes." If, however, you operate your boat on a land-locked lake wholly within one state, or a waterway which is not "navigable in fact" -- for instance if there are man-made or natural obstructions which currently prevent navigation on the body of water, then the answer is "no," and state (versus federal admiralty and maritime) law will apply.
What are some examples of how federal admiralty and maritime law may apply to my pleasure boat?
(1) The federal Rules of the Road, a/k/a Inland Navigational Rules apply on navigable waters of the United States.
(2) A federal court would likely have "admiralty jurisdiction" to hear a lawsuit involving an accident in which your boat is involved, or various contracts involving your boat. Even if your "boat" is a Wave Runnera,,? or other type of personal watercraft, federal admiralty and maritime law may still apply.
(3) The Vessel Owners Limitation of Liability Act would be likely to apply when your boat or another recreational or commercial vessel is involved in an accident on "navigable waters of the United States." This Act may in certain circumstances allow you and your insurance company to limit your liability to the post-accident value of your boat.
(4) Special rules concerning marine insurance may also apply, and you or your marine insurer may be able to file a lawsuit concerning your boat insurance in federal (versus state) court.
Admiralty and Maritime Law Post-Accident Checklist
See the link to our Admiralty and Maritime Practice page below.
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