As a South Florida maritime lawyer concentrating on personal injury, I am often approached by persons injured while working about a vessel. Usually, these workers are covered by the Jones Act (although that is oftentimes disputed). The Jones Act provides a cause of action for “[a] seaman injured in South Florida the course of employment or, if the seaman dies from the injury, the personal representative of the seaman may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer.”
What constitutes a “seaman” covered by the Jones Act was discussed by the U.S. Supreme Court in McDermott Intern., Inc. v. Willander, 498 U.S. 337, 111 S. Ct. 807, 112 L. Ed. 2d 866, 1991 AMC 913 (1991). The McDermott court held that a Jones Act seaman is “[a]ll persons employed on a vessel to assist in the main purpose of the voyage are mariners, and included under the name of seaman” and “[i]t was only necessary that a person be employed on board a vessel in furtherance of its purpose”. The court in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 115 S. Ct. 2172, 132 L. Ed. 2d 314, 1995 AMC 1840 (1995) further delved into the issue of what constitutes a seaman for Jones Act purposes. In that case, the court had to determine what relationship a worker must have to a specific vessel, regardless of the specific tasks the worker undertook. The Chandris court held that a seaman must (1) work in the service of a ship and (2) have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.
What constitutes an employer under the Jones Act has also been defined by the courts. In United States v. Webb, Inc., 397 U.S. 179 (1970) the court held that “[t]he existence of such an employer/employee relationship must be determined under maritime law and the burden of proof is on the seaman to establish the employment relationship. Among the factors to be considered in determining whether a party is an employer is the degree of control exercised over the details of the operation, the amount of supervision, the amount of investment in the operation, the method of payment and the parties’ understanding of the relationship”. Because an employer/employee relationship is a necessary antecedent to a Jones Act claim, “only one person, firm, or corporation can be sued as employer” (Cosmopolitan Shipping Co. v. McAllister, 337 U.S. 783, 791, 69 S. Ct. 1317, 1322 (1949)). Oftentimes, the injured seaman is an independent contractor and may be able to be covered by the Jones Act under the borrowed servant doctrine. A person may be a member of the crew of a vessel, and therefore a Jones Act seaman, even though he is employed by an independent contractor rather than the ship-owner. Under this example, the seaman is a borrowed servant of the ship-owner and the ship-owner occupies the position of an employer under the Jones Act. In Ruis v. Shell Oil, 413 F.2d 310, 312-13 (5th Cir. 1969), the court said that the crucial element is “control” and suggested several factors that were helpful in determining who had control. These are:
- Who has control over the employee and the work he is performing, beyond the mere suggestion of details or cooperation?
- Whose work is being performed?
- Was there an agreement, understating, or meeting of the minds between the original employer and the subsequent person for whom the employee performed services?
- Did the employee acquiesce in the new work situation?
- Did the original employer terminate his relationship with the employee?
- Who furnished the tools and place for performance?
- Was the new employment over a period of time?
- Who had the right to discharge the employee?
- Who had the obligation to pay the employee?
In order to prove negligence in a Jones Act case, the seaman must show that the employer breached its duty to act as a reasonable person under the circumstances. However, the courts have often characterized the seaman-plaintiff’s burden of proof as “very light” or “featherweight” ( Landry v. Two R. Drilling Co., 511 F.2d 138, 142 (5th Cir. 1975)). What this means is that the introduction of even the slightest evidence that the employer’s conduct fell below the reasonable person standard precludes a judge from taking the case away from a jury via directed verdict or judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Likewise, “a defect resulting from a violation of either statute which causes the injury or death of an employee creates liability without regard to negligence” (Kernan v. American Dredging Co., 355 U.S. 426, 78 S. Ct. 394, 2 L. Ed. 2d 382, 1958 AMC 251 (1958)). Also, a plaintiff in a Jones Act case need not show that the negligence of the employer is the sole cause of his injuries (Gajewski v. the United States, 540 F. Supp. 381, 1982 AMC 2830 (S.D.N.Y. 1982)).
The remedies for an injured seaman under the Jones Act are as follows:
- Maintenance and cure
- Lost wages
- Negligence of the employer
Maintenance and cure is the ship-owner’s duty to provide an injured seaman lodging, living expenses and medical care. The law of maintenance is of ancient origin dating back to the ancient Laws of Oleron, a code of maritime law published in the twelfth century. In most circuits, an employer’s refusal or failure to pay maintenance and cure will give a seaman an independent cause of action for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees, and possibly punitive damages (Harper v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 741 F.2d 87, 1985 AMC 979 (5th Cir. 1984)). Under maritime law, the employer is required to provide maintenance and cure until the injured seaman has reached maximum cure (otherwise recovered to the best condition medically possible). Lost wages while injured are likewise recoverable for a Jones Act seaman.
The attorneys at the LaBovick Law Group have extensive knowledge of the Jones Act and the injured seaman it covers. If you have been injured due to the negligence of your employer while working on a vessel, call today for a free consultation and case analysis.