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January 20th, 2010

Jury Trial and the Jones Act

The Jones Act is the federal law that governs an injured seaman rights when suing his employer for negligence.

Recently, in the Washington state court case of Endicott v. Icicle Seafoods, Inc., Plaintiff Justin Endicott’s arm was crushed by a fish cart while he was working in the freezer aboard Icicle Seafood’s ship “Bering Star.”  He sued under the Jones Act and the general maritime law doctrine of unseaworthiness.

Endicott elected to try his case to the bench, which is a trial to the judge without a jury.  The Defendant, Icicle Seafoods, Inc., asked on appeal if as a maritime Defendant, it is entitled to a trial by jury.  The Washington Supreme Court thus recently addressed the issue of whether or not a maritime personal injury Jones Act and unseaworthiness case should have been tried in front of a jury pursuant to a Defendant’s request.

The Jones Act provides a seaman injured during the course of his employment the right to try his case by jury against his maritime employer.  Since the Jones Act itself mentions only a Plaintiff’s right to a jury trial, the Ninth Circuit holds the Defendant not being mentioned means that it doesn’t have the right.

With regard to jury trials, both the Ninth Circuit and California state courts hold that the Jones Act grants plaintiffs the right to choose the mode of trial, while the Fifth and Seventh Circuits, Louisiana, Texas, and many other courts hold that either party can elect for a jury trial; the right is available to both parties in a lawsuit.

In a maritime case, a plaintiff has the right to ask a federal judge to sit in admiralty under Admiralty Rule 9(h) as an admiralty judge.  A federal judge sitting in admiralty is the sole decider of the facts and the law.  In Texas state court however, for example, a plaintiff does not have the exclusive right to secure a bench trial, because state procedure says a Defendant has the right to as for a trial by jury as well.

The decision on appeal in this case is interesting because most states don’t allow bench trials unless both parties agree.  While the trial court in this case adopted the Ninth Circuit position that the right to a jury trial belongs exclusively to a maritime Plaintiff, the Washington State Supreme Court today sides with the Fifth and Seventh Circuits that the jury trial right extends to both parties in a maritime case.

This Court ultimately held that the right to a trial by jury is based upon the way the plaintiff brings his cause of action. Once Endicott filed his suit at law in state court, state procedural law determined which party may demand a jury trial.  Because the Washington Constitution affords the plaintiff and defendant in a Jones Act case the right to elect to a trial by jury, this Court found that failing to allow Icicle Seafoods to assert their right to a jury trial was in error.

There is an obvious split among the Circuits when interpreting the Jones Act right to select a trial by jury.  The Ninth Circuit allows only the plaintiff to assert this right, and the Fifth and Seventh Circuits, hold that either side can elect to bring the action in admiralty or at law.  An injured seaman can always ask for a jury trial in state or federal court.  It is his right.  It is up to an experienced maritime lawyer to decide which will work best for your case depending upon which forum you are in.

This case illustrates just one more reason why if you are injured while working offshore, you must consult with an experienced maritime lawyer about your case.  Our firm handles cases in all fifty states of the United States and around the world and has done so for over 45 years.  We are experts at selecting the approrpriate venue for your case and then determining if a judge or jury will give you the best result in that venue.  The maritime attorneys at Schechter, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P., Accident & Injury Lawyers represent injured workers on freighters, tankers, jack up and semi submersible rigs, cruise liners, and other employees who may qualify as Jones Act seamen. Contact us for a free legal consultation.

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