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The Jones Act protects seamen from maritime accidents and injuries and provides compensation in the event of serious injury or death.
Shipping accidents, cruise ship accidents, fishing boats and offshore accidents and other injuries at sea do not fall under the normal workers compensation laws and are notorious for taking a long time to resolve.
Most people are unaware of the liabilities associated with working on a sea vessel. Maritime workers, those working aboard U.S. vessels, often incur injuries and sometimes even death due to variety of dangerous, negligent or unsafe circumstances. Because these workers cannot get reparation like most land-based workers through workers compensation settlements, the route to compensation for injuries and damages is through the Jones Act of 1917 (Jones Act 1920).
The Jones Act is not to be confused with the Death on High Seas Act, which is another maritime law in the United States that does not apply to coastal and in-land navigable waters.
Also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act (46 U.S.C) is a federal statute designed to protect the rights of maritime workers, particularly those who were injured or who passed away under the care of the vessel they are in.
The Jones Act is not to be confused with workers compensation or the Death on High Seas Act.
The Jones Act statute also promotes the use American merchant marines. It standardizes maritime commerce in both U.S. waters and U.S. ports. Cabotage, under section 27 of the Jones Act, requires that all goods transported via water between United States ports are to be carried on United States flagged ships that are constructed in the same country, owned by U.S. citizens and crewed by U.S. citizens and United States permanent residents. Introduced by Senator Wesley Jones, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 has been revised and amended several times; with the most recent revision in 2006 that entailed including the recodification in the U.S. Code.
Maritime workers are not entitled to workers’ compensation claims against employers, unlike land-based workers. When these workers are injured during their work duty, the only reparation they can receive for damages of injuries is through the Jones Act and the general maritime law.
The Jones Act is not restricted only to seamen but also to inland river workers and offshore workers who work on most types of boats, ships, vessels, barges, cargo ships, fishing boats, tugboats and other floating or moveable structure.
The Jones Act basically governs the culpability of the vessel owner, operators and marine employers for injuries or death of employees that are work-related. The Congress intended that Jones Act statute cover for all workers’ injuries nationwide to be guided by a set of standardized liabilities. It is required by the Jones act that the employer had failed to perform a reasonable act, or must have done something reasonable that could have prevented injuries on its workers.
Under the Jones Act, individuals are considered as seamen only when they spend at least 30% of their time on a sea vessel. The figure is a rule of thumb but is not determinative.
Maritime Accidents and Jones Act Litigation
Jones Act lawsuits and claims pursue legal compensations of a maritime worker who has retained injuries in the course of work under the vessel the worker was aboard. The Maritime Law provides legal rights to injured seamen and maritime workers, along with the right to file a Jones Act lawsuit. The Federal Employer’s Liability Act is also extended on this federal statute. This liability act allows maritime workers to file a personal injury claim against their employers in the event of harm.
Plaintiffs have the ability to bring the lawsuit to a federal district court or a state court. Plaintiffs are allowed the right to a jury trial only in the case of personal injury actions through the Jones Act, in spite of maritime law generally denying that right for plaintiffs. However, the defendant is not allowed to remove a case from state court to federal court. This can be seen in Section 688a of 46 U.S.C.
Like any other personal injury case, an injured maritime worker is entitled to the same type of damages; particularly: compensation for lost earnings, lost earning capacity, past and future medical expenses related to the injury, pain and suffering, and mental anguish. Some courts allow maritime workers to be given interest on the incurred damages.
For individuals to recover damages under the law of the Jones Act, the injured worker must provide enough proof that the vessel, including its gear or equipment, has any defect, or its vessel owners, operators, officers or employees must have some fault. In relation to this particular scope, the Jones Act simply serves to protect the rights of maritime workers.
If a maritime worker wishes to sue with regard to the Jones Act, the lawsuit must be filed within three years of the date of the injury. A lawsuit may be filed in either a state or federal court, within the state of where the injury had occurred or in the state in which the defendant lives or is headquartered.
A multi district litigation in 1991 was created to manage all federal cases of asbestos-related personal injury and wrongful death claims. The Pennsylvania federal judge had presided over this multi district litigation and had made a ruling on Jones Act plaintiffs that they may be able to seek punitive damages. Maritime workers are suing ship owners due to claims of ship-born asbestos exposure that had contributed to deaths, among scarred lungs in survivors. The plaintiffs are suing both under the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act. Recoveries are limited to monetary damages for medical damages. Hence, the defendants in these cases cannot be punished for extreme negligence.
Claims from plaintiffs allege that the ships were not seaworthy. Judge Eduardo C. Robreno, however, has ruled that these claims of unseaworthiness are not under the Jones Act since the ship owner duty to provide seaworthy vessel comes from the master-servant relationship which is a concept that is dated even before the Jones Act of 1920. Because of this ruling, plaintiffs are then able to seek for punitive damages, only for sailors injured, and not killed, by the alleged conditions. This is the longest running multi district litigation in history.
In the case of Skye versus Maersk Line, seamen who have developed ailments due to work-related stress have no claim against their employers under the Jones Act, as found by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. According to the lawsuit, a chief mate had developed left ventricular hypertrophy, which is the thickening of the heart wall of the left ventricle, due to exorbitant work hours and irregular sleep schedules because of the work load demanded by his employer.
The lawsuit was filed in Miami Federal Court alleging that the employer triggered the heart disease by negligently overworking the seaman to the extent of fatigue. A jury trial was established and found that the employer was 25% liable and was awarded over $2 million to the seaman. However, the court reduced the amount to a little over $590,000 because of the seaman’s 75% negligence.
The Eleventh Circuit analyzed the Jones Act and the Supreme Court precedent, including discussions of the Federal Employer’s Liability Act. It was then concluded that seamen are only protected by employer negligence if injuries were imminent threats with physical impact. The Eleventh Circuit found that work-related stress injuries are not actionable under the Jones Act.
Individuals who are injured sea workers are entitled to raise claims against the vessel owner that an existing hazardous plight was on the vessel – making the said vessel not seaworthy. The unseaworthiness doctrine is then applied in these situations. It is the legal duty of the vessel owner or entity in control of the vessel to ensure the following: safety working order of the craft, said craft is properly equipped and operated by competent crew members. When a seaman gets injured due to any of these neglected responsibilities, the vessel owner will be liable. The plaintiff is then allowed to recover damages the same as any available damage in a regular personal injury or negligence lawsuit.
In short, the vessel owner is liable for claims of unseaworthiness. Claims can possibly include injuries due to slippery surfaces, negligence of other employees, defective equipment or insufficient medical supplies resulting in worsening illness or illnesses of the seaman.
Maritime Employers’ Responsibilities and Liabilities
Maritime employers are required by the Jones Act to provide a safe place to work for its employees as well as use commonplace care under the conditions to preserve and retain the vessel on which the seaman is aboard in a safe situation. The employers are also liable to its workers, including the vessel’s captain and co-workers, for negligence of its employees.
Unsafe conditions on a vessel include grease or oil found on the deck, broken equipment, improper maintenance of equipment, employer’s failure to make proper equipment available for crew members to properly fulfill work duties, improper training of the crew, unsafe work methods, negligence of the seaman’s co-workers, and any kind of assault of a co-worker.
Employers are also liable for hiring or not firing a violent, or basically, unsafe crew member. It is understood the sea vessels have difficult circumstances associated with them, but if a threatening crew member is too violent, he is deemed an unsafe part of the ship and its crew. Therefore, the employer has the legal responsibility to disallow and fire the violent member off the vessel to keep other crew members away from harm.
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