Specific laws protect the rights of people who are injured while working on boats or in the maritime industry. These claims differ from ordinary workers’ compensation or personal injury claims, so it is important to understand the laws and requirements that are likely to apply.
The laws distinguish between “seamen” and other people working in this industry. A seaman spends a significant amount of time working as a captain or a crewmember on a vessel that is in navigation. The seaman must contribute to the work of the vessel, although this requirement is broadly defined. A “significant amount of time” means that at least 30% of the worker’s employment time is spent on a vessel or a group of vessels. This is the most commonly contested part of the definition.
The Jones Act
In contrast to workers’ compensation claimants, injured maritime workers must prove that their employer’s negligence caused their injuries. This is provided by the Jones Act, a federal law that serves as the main replacement for the workers’ compensation system in this industry. It requires maritime employers to provide a reasonably safe place to work and take reasonable steps to keep their vessels in a condition that is reasonably safe under the circumstances. Liability under the Jones Act can arise from virtually any defective condition, no matter how minor. Also, the injured seaman only needs to show that the employer’s negligence played some role in causing their injuries. (This is a lesser burden than the burden on personal injury plaintiffs in ordinary negligence cases, who must prove that the defendant’s negligence was the substantial or primary cause of their injuries.)
Remedies for Injured Seamen Under Maritime Law
In addition to suing under the Jones Act, an injured seaman can pursue remedies under the traditional maritime law doctrines of unseaworthiness or maintenance and cure. Unseaworthiness means that the vessel does not have safe and appropriate equipment for seamen to perform their work, or that it is not a safe place for them to work. (It does not mean that the vessel literally cannot go to sea.) In some ways, unseaworthiness is more similar to strict liability than negligence. Whether the actions of the vessel’s owner were reasonable has no bearing on liability. A safety defect in the vessel automatically results in liability if it caused an accident.
Maintenance and cure is a limited set of remedies that has existed for centuries. Essentially, it requires the employer to pay for the seaman’s room and board (maintenance) and medical expenses (cure) until the seaman reaches maximum medical improvement. This is the point at which their condition is not expected to improve further. Room and board extends to some items that you might not expect, such as a mortgage, property taxes, and homeowner’s insurance, although it does not cover other important items like phone bills or car payments.
The Longshore Act
If you do not meet the definition of a seaman, you may be eligible for compensation under a federal law known as the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, which protects maritime employees generally. People who work at shipyards and docks, for example, usually can receive compensation under this law. (However, people who work on naval bases can receive compensation under a different federal law known as the Defense Base Act.)
The Longshore Act is more similar than the Jones Act to state workers’ compensation laws, but it can provide more substantial compensation. Workers can obtain benefits for partial or total and for temporary or permanent disabilities. One key distinction from workers’ compensation is that temporary total disability benefits are two-thirds of the injured employee’s average weekly wage, while they might be only 60% in the workers’ compensation system. The Longshore Act also allows for benefits for maritime workers with a permanent partial disability, which are not always available under workers’ compensation.