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Injured Seaman- What is the Jones Act?

Remedies for Injured Seamen

When a Seaman is injured during the course of his employment, his/her injury is covered by a Federal Law known as The Jones Act. What is the Jones Act? The first hurdle to jump over in a Jones Act case is to receive Seaman status because the Federal Statute does not define what a Seaman is. The legal definition of a Seaman in regards to a Jones Act case has been created by case law. In order for an injured Seaman to reach Seaman status under the Jones Act, they must: (1) have duties that contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission and (2) have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels).

The second stage to hurdle is whether there is a vessel involved. This issue was recently discussed and decided upon by the US Supreme Court in the Lozman v. Riviera Beach case (that case involved whether a houseboat was a vessel and whether it was subject to an arrest procedure – off-topic for this blog). Basically, a vessel is any watercraft practically capable of maritime transportation, regardless of its primary purpose or state of transit at a particular moment.  Vessel status is oftentimes challenged by defendants because the definition of a vessel (especially after Lozman) is extremely vague and ambiguous.

Next, a Jones Act claimant must prove that they were injured in the course of his employment. What this essentially means is that the Seaman must be injured while working. This is usually a factual issue that must be fleshed out through discovery. For example, is a fisherman hurt while walking to his cot during a break in the course of his employment? Absolutely (at least that is what I would argue)! I would look at the employment agreement first. Fishermen are usually paid a cut of the net catch proceeds and their work consists of actual on deck time and time spent on their breaks.

After proving the above, the party responsible for the injury (either the employer or owner of the vessel) must have breached some standard of care. In the Jones Act Seaman and employer are required to exercise ordinary care under the circumstances. Basically, both parties are supposed to act like other reasonable Seaman and marine employers in like circumstances. This aspect of a Jones Act case is exactly like other injury cases on land. Negligence is proportioned by a finder of fact (a jury) and the injured party’s compensation is proportioned accordingly. For example, a plaintiff wins $100,000 at trial and the jury apportions fault at 75% defendant and 25% plaintiff. The plaintiff wins a total of $75,000.

In addition to Jones Act remedies, South Florida injured seamen are entitled to receive maintenance, cure and wages in their injury cases. When a seaman is injured, regardless of fault, they are entitled to these remedies.  The ship-owner’s ancient duty (created by the Laws of Oleron around 1160 A.D. by Eleanor of Aquitaine, based on the Lex Rhodia or Law of Rhodes from around the 1st Century) to provide maintenance and cure if the seaman becomes sick or injured derives from the unique hazards which follow seamen work. The obligation of maintenance and cure is so broad that even acts short of culpable misconduct on the seaman’s part will not relieve the ship-owner’s responsibility to provide these services. Basically, maintenance and cure require the ship-owner to pay the seaman’s wages and hospital bills until the point of maximum cure. The maximum cure is the point in time when the seaman is all healed or to the point in time where no amount of medical care would heal the seaman more. Failure by the ship-owner to pay this benefit may be grounds for punitive damages.

Another remedy available to injured Seamen is a cause of action titled unseaworthiness. Again, this right was first codified in the Laws of Oleron and is based on maritime law dating back centuries before that. Unseaworthiness is a claim that the ship was unseaworthy for the task at hand and/or a warranty of fitness for duty. The warranty of seaworthiness applies to the hull of the ship, the ship’s cargo-handling machinery, hand tools aboard the ship, ropes and tackle, and in general, all sorts of equipment either belonging to the ship or brought aboard by others. Also, a ship may be unseaworthy if it lacks certain types of equipment, such as maps or lifesaving gear.

Be warned, this is just a rough rundown of the Jones Act and other claims available to injured Seamen and is not a treatise on the Jones Act (that would be an extremely large book, similar to the ones I already own). There are numerous intricacies regarding these causes of action. It is essential that injured Seamen seek advice from a maritime attorney to get the maximum compensation they are entitled to.

The law of the sea is different than that of the law of the land. While accidents on land and on the water both require liability, causation and damages to be proven in order to prevail in a lawsuit and the method of proving these essential elements to a claim are different, and it takes an experienced maritime lawyer in South Florida to wade through the rough waters of a maritime claim. Stay tuned for my next blog where I will discuss more of the personal injury side of a maritime accident as it applies to Longshoremen and Harbor Workers, non-maritime persons, and wrongful death cases.]

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