Workers who are injured in jobs on land have the right to pursue workers’ compensation benefits through their employer. However, this right does not apply to seamen who are injured on the job. A federal law known as the Jones Act protects injured seamen, who can seek damages based on negligence by their employers. To pursue a Jones Act claim, an employee in the maritime industry must spend a significant amount of time contributing to the work of a vessel. This usually means at least 30 percent of their working hours. The vessel must be in navigation, which means that it must be afloat on navigable waters, in operation, and capable of moving. Thus, virtually all crew members and captains will qualify as Jones Act seamen, while office workers and administrative staff who occasionally visit a vessel may not.
Eligibility for Jones Act Damages vs. Eligibility for Workers’ Compensation
An injured worker on land can get workers’ compensation benefits without proving fault, or generally even if they were at fault for an accident. In contrast, an injured seaman must prove fault to get damages, although (as discussed below) this is not as challenging as in ordinary personal injury cases.
An injured seaman can recover Jones Act damages if they can show that their employer or any of its other employees was negligent. They also must show that the negligence caused their injuries. Damages available in these cases resemble damages in ordinary personal injury cases and are much more extensive than workers’ compensation benefits. A worker may be able to recover not only damages for medical bills, lost wages, and lost earning capacity but also damages for non-economic forms of harm, such as pain and suffering.
Negligence and Causation Under the Jones Act
A maritime employer has a duty to keep its vessels reasonably safe for seamen to work on them. Negligence involves a failure to use reasonable care to maintain safe conditions on the vessel. This can lead to problems such as broken or inadequately maintained equipment, a failure to identify and address hazards, a lack of appropriate equipment or safety devices, inadequate training of crew members, or violence among crew members, among other examples.
Proving causation does not mean that negligence by an employer or coworker was a substantial factor or the primary cause of the seaman’s injuries. Instead, the negligence merely must have contributed to the seaman’s injuries to some extent, no matter how small. This is an important difference between Jones Act claims and ordinary personal injury cases.
First Steps to Take After a Maritime Injury
After suffering an injury while working at sea, you must promptly report the injury to your supervisor. You must report the injury within seven days, but generally you should report the injury as soon as possible. Otherwise, the insurer may suspect that the injury was not as serious as you are asserting.
You also will need to complete an accident report to the extent that you can. The report likely will ask who was at fault for your injuries. If you do not place some fault on your employer or a coworker, you may face greater obstacles if you pursue a Jones Act claim later. However, if you blame your employer for the injury, this may undermine the employment relationship if you do not seek Jones Act damages and choose to continue in your job. You should think carefully about how to complete this section, and you can respond that you are not sure who was at fault if that is true.
An injured seaman must keep up with medical treatment throughout the course of their injury, such as going to scheduled doctor’s appointments and adhering to any instructions or limitations that the doctor provides. Failing to follow through with medical treatment may give the insurer grounds to argue that you are exaggerating your injury or that it is no longer affecting you.
Resolving a Jones Act Claim
The majority of Jones Act claims settle out of court. An injured seaman should not agree to settle a Jones Act claim until they have recovered from their injury to the extent possible, known as maximum medical improvement. At this point, they will know the full extent of the compensation to which they should be entitled. If their injury is not expected to prevent them from returning to work, a seaman ideally should not settle until they go back to their job.
If settlement negotiations break down, an injured seaman will need to pursue a lawsuit in state or federal court. A Jones Act lawsuit generally must be filed within three years after the injury to comply with the statute of limitations. Otherwise, it will be dismissed unless an exception applies.
Unseaworthiness: Another Avenue to Relief
Sometimes an injured seaman might pursue a claim under the traditional maritime doctrine of unseaworthiness. This arises when a ship owner fails to ensure that their vessel, equipment, and crew are adequately capable of fulfilling their functions in operating the ship. If any part of a vessel, its equipment, or its crew is not reasonably adequate, a seaman can sue the ship owner for any injuries that they suffer as a result. They can bring this claim in addition to a Jones Act claim. If the ship owner is different from the employer, a seaman might have claims against two separate entities.
What Does the Term “Unseaworthiness” Mean?
“Unseaworthiness” is a technical term that does not literally mean that a vessel cannot go to sea. It simply means that the ship is not a safe working environment.