Most land-based employees are entitled to workers’ compensation when they are injured at work. Seamen do not get workers’ compensation. Instead, to receive compensation for work injuries, seamen must assert claims for (1) Jones Act negligence, (2) unseaworthiness and/or (3) maintenance and cure. This article describes these claims.
(1) Jones Act Negligence
The seaman’s first claim, under the federal law known as the Jones Act, is that his/her employer was negligent and that this negligence was a cause of his/her injuries. Jones Act employers can be negligent for:
doing an act that a reasonably prudent person would not do,
failing to do something that a reasonably prudent person would do, under the same or similar circumstances,
failing to provide for the safety of the crew,
failing to comply with a duty required by law,
assigning the seaman to perform a task that he/she was not adequately trained to perform and/or
failing to provide a reasonably safe place to work
Significantly, in a Jones Act claim, the word “negligence” is liberally interpreted. For example, Jones Act employers bear the responsibility for any negligence that played a part, however slight, in causing a seaman’s injuries. Further, the fact that an employer conducted its operations similar to that of other companies is not conclusive as to whether it was negligent or not.
The seaman’s second claim is that unseaworthiness of a vessel caused his/her injuries. A shipowner owes every member of the crew employed on its vessel the absolute duty to keep and maintain the vessel and all its decks and passageways, appliances, gear, tools, parts and equipment in a seaworthy condition at all times. A seaworthy vessel is one that is reasonably fit for its intended use.
The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel includes the duty to supply an adequate and competent crew. A vessel may be unseaworthy even though it has a numerically adequate crew, if too few persons are assigned to a given task.
The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel is absolute because the owner may not delegate that duty to anyone. Significantly, liability for an unseaworthy condition does not in any way depend on negligence or fault or blame. If an owner does not provide a seaworthy vessel, no amount of care or prudence excuses the owner.
(3) Maintenance and cure
A seaman’s third claim is for what is called “maintenance and cure.” Maintenance and cure provides a seaman who is disabled by injury or illness while in the ship’s service with medical care and treatment and the means of maintaining himself/herself while he/she is recuperating. Maintenance is the cost of food, lodging, and transportation to and from a medical facility. Cure is the cost of medical attention.
A seamen is entitled to maintenance and cure even if he/she is not injured as a result of any negligence on the part of his employer or any unseaworthy condition of the vessel. To recover maintenance and cure, a seaman need only show that he/she suffered injury or illness while in the service of the vessel on which he/she was employed as a seaman.
If, after investigating a maintenance and cure claim, the employer unreasonably rejects the claim, the employer is liable for both the maintenance and cure payments and for compensatory damages caused by the unreasonable failure to pay. Additionally, the employer may have to pay punitive damages and attorney’s fees if it is determined that its failure to pay maintenance and cure was not only unreasonable, but was also a willful and wanton disregard of the seaman’s claim for maintenance and cure.
If a judge or jury finds that an employer is liable for Jones Act negligence or unseaworthiness, then the seaman is entitled to compensation. The following damages can be recovered:
past and future physical pain and suffering, including physical disability, impairment, and inconvenience, and the effect of the seamen’s injuries and inconvenience on the normal pursuits and pleasures of life;
past and future mental anguish and feelings of economic insecurity caused by the disability;
income lost in the past;
impairment of earning capacity or ability in the future, including impairment of the seaman’s earning capacity due to his/her physical condition;
past medical expenses; and
future medical expenses
The above is derived from the Fifth Circuit’s Pattern Jury Instructions which can be accessed through the following publicly available link: https://www.lb5.uscourts.gov/juryinstructions/Fifth/2020civil.pdf
Please feel free to contact me at (985) 705-1028 or email@example.com if you have any questions or would like to discuss.