Seaman Injury



1. What is the Jones Act?

The Jones Act is a federal statute enacted in 1920 which established a negligence remedy against a seaman’s employer for the injury or death of a seaman. The Jones Act specifically incorporates the rights and remedies extended to railroad workers by the Federal Employees Liability Act (“FELA”). Thus the Jones Act and the FELA are two of the very few circumstances in which an employee can sue his employer for the negligence of the employer or the employee’s co-workers, and not be limited to inadequate workers’ compensation laws.

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2. Who is a “seaman”?

The rights of seamen and other maritime workers and their survivors to recover for illness, personal injury and wrongful death depends greatly upon the category in which the law classifies the worker as either a seaman or other maritime worker.

The key to seaman status is connection to a vessel in navigation. However, it is not necessary that a seaman aid in navigation or contribute to the navigation of the vessel, but a seaman must be doing the ship’s work. This means that the definition of seaman may be considerably broader than those who actually navigate the vessel or maintain the vessel’s engines. It can also apply in certain cases to those who contribute to the function of the vessel but not to its navigation, such as hotel staff workers aboard cruise ships, hair dressers, bartenders, musicians, and even dealers on gambling vessels.

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3. What type of vessels are we talking about?

As defined earlier, the term “vessel” is every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water. This is a very broad definition, and can include, among others, river towboats, ocean-going tugs and tows, cruise liners, fishing vessels, harbour tugs, ocean-going commercial vessels from cargo vessels to supertankers, oil exploration vessels such as drilling ships, semi-submersible vessels, jack-up rigs, pile-driving vessels, dredges, crewboats and offshore supply vessels, and virtually any other type of craft capable of being used for transportation on the waters. The category is even broad enough to include pleasure vessels.

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4. Is it necessary that the vessel be a commercial vessel?

No, for example, if a private owner of a sailing yacht were to hire a crew member to work a specific race aboard that yacht, that crew member would be a Jones Act seaman. This would be true even if the yacht also carried other persons that had not been hired to work aboard the vessel and were not considered Jones Act seamen.

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5. What laws apply to the “seaman”?

Generally, seamen are covered under both the General Maritime Law of the United States, and under Federal Statutes, such as the Jones Act. It is not entirely clear whether the test for seaman status is the same for the purposes of the Jones Act and the general maritime law, as the question has not been squarely addressed by the United States Supreme Court. However, it is clear that many crew members may qualify for Jones Act seaman status because they contribute to the function of the vessel but not its navigation, such as hotel staff workers and those mentioned above.

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6. What damages can be recovered?

An injured worker can recover wages lost from the time of injury to the time of trial, future expected wage losses, past medical expenses not paid by the employer, future medical expenses and compensation for pain, suffering, and mental anguish in the past and in the future.

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7. What if an injury causes the death of a seaman?

A seaman’s cause of action does not die with the seaman. Benefits are available to the surviving spouse and children. A personal representative of the seaman’s estate can bring a claim against the employer.

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8. What rights do the seaman have under the general maritime law?

An injured seaman is entitled under the General Maritime Law to certain remedies, including maintenance (a daily amount for subsistence during recuperation), cure (medical care), unearned wages to the end of the voyage or employment contract, and repatriation (return to the seaman’s home port in the event that he is injured overseas). The general maritime law also provides a tort remedy based on unseaworthiness, a type of strict liability.

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9. What do the terms maintenance and cure mean?

A seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure when injured or taken ill while in the service of a vessel. This right is broader than under most workers compensation schemes in that the injury or illness need not necessarily be work related under the general maritime law. It is sufficient if the illness manifests itself during the time that the seaman was in the service of the vessel. For example, a seaman who has appendicitis is entitled to have both his medical bills and maintenance paid until he reaches Maximum Medical Improvement following surgery even though the appendicitis was in no way caused by his work conditions nor was it a condition that is traditionally considered “work related” under most workers compensation schemes.

Maintenance is designed to provide the ill or injured seaman with compensation sufficient to pay for care, including lodging expenses. The amount of maintenance to which the seaman is entitled is a factual question, but is often said to be in replacement of the cost to the employer of the food and lodging of the seaman while he was aboard a vessel.

Traditionally, seamen have been paid $8 per day maintenance. This figure was predicated on a 1951 Union Contract and has been enforced by the Courts, particularly for Union members. In the case of non-union seamen, today the maintenance ranges between $15 and $25 per day in most cases. The amount of maintenance in non-union cases is somewhat at the discretion of the Court, but it is a rare Court that awards more than $25 per day for maintenance.

The obligation of the employer to pay maintenance and cure terminates when Maximum Medical Improvement has been reached. If a condition is incurable, the obligation to pay maintenance and cure ends when it is determined that the sickness or incapacity is permanent.

Cure means that the employer is obligated to pay the injured seaman’s reasonable medical expenses up until the time of Maximum Medical Improvement. A seaman has the right to select his own physicians and method of treatment, which contrasts with the normal right of the employer to select the physicians under workers compensation schemes.

The obligation of cure is not merely to reimburse an injured seaman for medical expenses. The employer must also make arrangements for the seaman to obtain medical care if the seaman is not in a position to do so.

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10. What are unearned wages?

An injured seaman is entitled to unearned wages from the time of incapacity to the end of the voyage or the termination of the shipping articles. Shipping articles are generally signed for overseas trips and an injured seaman who does not complete the term of the articles is entitled to be paid through the end of the articles. In coastwise shipping, it is customary to sign on crew members for a specified period of time and recovery of wages until the end of that term generally is granted.

If tip income is a significant component of a seaman’s wages, average tip income must be included in calculating unearned wages. This is particularly important in cruise line cases.

Unearned wage claims are rare because a seaman typically has claims for negligence under the Jones Act and for unseaworthiness under the General Maritime Law, both of which permit recovery for lost income.

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11. What does unseaworthiness mean?

The doctrine of unseaworthiness is a feature of the General Maritime Law. The warranty of seaworthiness imposed by operation of law on a vessel owner or operator is an absolute and non-delegable duty to seamen to provide a vessel that is reasonably fit for its intended purposes or for its intended voyage. The mere happening of an accident is not evidence of unseaworthiness, but when a breach of the warranty causes injury or death, the vessel and its owner can be found liable.

The duty to provide a vessel that is reasonably safe extends to all parts of the vessel and to almost all facets of its operation. The fact that the unseaworthy condition occurred after the vessel left port is immaterial. It is no excuse that the vessel owner had no notice or opportunity to correct the condition that caused the injury.

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12. What conditions make a vessel unseaworthy?

The warranty of seaworthiness extends to all parts of the vessel, including the hull, appliances, gear and equipment, even the vessel’s crew. Indeed, unfit crew members constitute just as much of a hazard as unfit gear.

Temporary conditions such as oil, water, or ice on the deck may constitute transitory unseaworthiness. These conditions are often recent and there is no knowledge of the condition, either actual or constructive, on the part of the vessel owner. However, the vessel owner’s knowledge of the condition is not material to whether or not the vessel was unseaworthy. In a classic case, the plaintiff was a crew member of a fishing trawler. During the unloading of the catch, fish spawn and slime had covered the deck and railing. The plaintiff, who was attempting to get off the vessel, put his foot on the rail, slipped, and was injured. The Court held that it did not matter that the condition arose after the voyage began. Also, the lack of constructive or actual knowledge of the condition by the owner or the lack of an opportunity to correct it was no defense.

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13. What is the Jones Act?

The Jones Act is a federal statute enacted in 1920 which established a negligence remedy against a seaman’s employer for the injury or death of a seaman. The Jones Act specifically incorporates the rights and remedies extended to railroad workers by the Federal Employees Liability Act (“FELA”). Thus the Jones Act and the FELA are two of the very few circumstances in which an employee can sue his employer for the negligence of the employer or the employee’s co-workers.

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14. How can a seaman prevail under the Jones Act?

Hiring a competent attorney to handle your claim is paramount. The seaman must show that the employer was negligent and that the negligence was a cause of the injuries sustained by the seaman. Further, unlike cases of “unseaworthiness,” it must be shown that the ship owner knew or in the exercise of due care, should have known, of the dangerous condition.

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15. Where is the suit filed for my claim of unseaworthiness or for negligence under the Jones Act?

A seaman may sue the seaman’s employer under the Jones Act in either Federal Court or in State Court. If the case is originally brought in the State Court, the defendant may not remove the case to the Federal Court. However, even if the case is brought in the State Court, the Federal Maritime Law applies to the State claim.

A claim for “unseaworthiness” may also be brought in the same case as the plaintiff’s Jones Act suit.

If the seaman were to bring only an unseaworthiness claim in the Federal Court, this would be an admiralty action and there would be no right to a jury trial. However, if the seaman also couples the unseaworthiness claim with a claim for negligence under the Jones Act in the Federal Court, then he may ask for a jury trial as to both claims. Again, as in the State cases, the seaman’s right to elect a jury trial or a Judge trial is the controlling factor.

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16. What is the statute of limitations for a Jones Claim Act?

Three (3) years.

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17. What is the statute of limitations for an unseaworthiness claim?

Three (3) years.

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18. What if I’m injured aboard a government vessel?

The Statute of Limitations is (2) years.

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19. What does the statute of limitations mean?

If you don’t file your claim in court within 3 years from the date of your injury, and you haven’t settled your claim out of court, you will be forever barred from recovering any damages for your injuries.
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20. How can you help me if I live in another state or city from your law offices?

Even though our main office is in Pensacola, Florida, we will travel across the nation to you in an appropriate case. In some cases, we may have to associate with a local attorney in states other than the gulf coast states of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, in order to comply with local state rules.
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21. How are your legal fees paid?

We collect a fee only if we recover for you. We charge you a “contingent fee” which is usually one third of the total amount we recover. We advance on your behalf the costs to investigate and prosecute your claim. If we don’t make a recovery for you, you owe us nothing. Our fee and recovery of our funds advanced for costs are contingent upon the recovery of money damages for you either through settlement or by a court judgment.
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22. How do I make an appointment with you?

You can e-mail us or telephone us directly, our you can fill out our online contact form. Upon receipt of the form or a telephone message from you we will contact you personally and immediately.
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23. What about sensitive personal information?

We hold all communications from you in the strictest of confidence and will not disclose to anyone without your permission any information. Even if you don’t decide to retain us the information you provided us is held in strict confidence and will not be disclosed without your permission.
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24. What if I already have a lawyer?

Our offer to answer a question for you also includes our willingness to talk to your attorney or answer the question for him at no charge. But, if you have a lawyer, it would be appropriate that you check with him first and get his approval to communicate with us. You should follow his advice as long as he or she represents you and do nothing to jeopardize your case.
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