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July 10th, 2012

Jurisdiction and Liability at Sea

The questions of liability for workers injured in a maritime environment and the jurisdictions of the courts that may properly hear such maritime claims is complicated by issues such as state versus federal jurisdiction and liability for injuries that arise in areas where state versus national versus international territorial waterways may not be clearly defined.

Jurisdiction Issues

Under the United States Constitution, the federal judiciary is given original jurisdiction in matters arising at sea. It does not, however, define exactly where a state’s sovereignty over its waters ends and federal authority over the seas begins. Furthermore, the Constitution does not specify whether or not federal practice and procedures take precedence over state laws in jurisdictions where the two bodies of law may be in conflict. These issues were later addressed by by various decisions of the federal courts and by Congress in the form of statutory laws.

At the judicial level the courts have held that, when there is no supervening federal law, the local practice and procedures that would apply to a state court in the state where a federal court is hearing a maritime claim will be followed by the federal court. This means that a federal court must apply the applicable state laws in those cases where there is no federal law to take precedence over a state law. These rulings were made in order to formalize the principle that the laws of one state would not take precedence over the laws of another.

There are several statutory laws that have been enacted to deal with questions regarding jurisdiction over maritime matters and issues of liability for events occurring on state and federal waterways. The most relevant to issues of liability include:

Jones Act 

The Jones Act was the first statute to legally define a “seaman,” define liability in a maritime context, and to specify what constituted a “waterway.” A seaman is defined as a member of a ship’s crew, who is aboard a vessel as a part of his normal and customary duties, as an employee. Under the Jones Act, an injured seaman is entitled to compensation for injuries received while working within the previous definition. Most importantly, it provided that the plaintiffs in maritime claims for compensation must demonstrate negligence on the part of the ship’s owner or ship’s master in order to have an enforceable claim. The details of such claims should be left to a maritime lawyer who is intimately familiar with the Act itself and can interpret it accordingly.

Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) 

The LHWCA extended the workman’s compensation provisions of the Jones Act to those workers who did work in a maritime environment (e.g. on a dock or in a warehouse that received cargo from commercial ships), but were not classified as seamen as defined by the Jones Act.

Unlike the Jones Act, the LHWCA is less strict in its demands for proof of negligence. It does, however, impose a strict timetable under which claims must be filed and the procedures to be followed in filing such maritime claims. As with legal actions under the Jones Act,claims under the LHWCA should be handled by an experienced maritime lawyer in order to protect the worker’s right to just compensation for an injury.

If you’ve been injured on the job, contact the maritime lawyers at Schechter, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P., Accident & Injury Lawyers to find out if you have a maritime claim.

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