What Are My Legal Rights as a Seaman?
The maritime sector is a booming industry that forms a vital part of the national—and international—economy. Employees in this industry can earn a generous income while contributing to an undeniably important line of work that touches on a very wide spectrum of our everyday lives.
Nonetheless, it can’t be denied that seamen toil away in a tough line of work—it’s simply not an occupation for slackers. Not only do these hardy individuals exert themselves strenuously on a day-to-day basis, they do so in work environments where physical hazards are seemingly everywhere.
Luckily, maritime law is firmly on the side of seamen who become seriously harmed while on the job, and victims can qualify for financial compensation—even if they are responsible for the incident in question.
For best results, you need a maritime injury lawyer who has in-depth knowledge of the various laws protecting your rights. Let’s take this opportunity to look at the state of the law as it relates to maritime personal injury.
Dangers of Maritime Employment
The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster of 2010, in which 11 workers were killed, offered an unusually vivid example of the dangers associated with this type of employment. Accidents on this scale are thankfully quite rare, but there are many perils of a less dramatic nature that maritime workers routinely must confront, and some of these can cause crippling or lethal injuries.
The weather is responsible for a significant number of injuries and deaths at sea. Wind and rough waters create slippery walking surfaces for seamen and can even send personnel toppling overboard, where they may develop life-threatening cases of frostbite or hypothermia—assuming that they can be rescued at all.
Dangers also come from vessels’ cargo, which may contain extremely harmful gases and chemicals. Heavy equipment on board can suddenly shift out of position and crush seamen who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Considering the various hazards that beset seamen, no wonder that on-the-job injuries are as common as they are. Most of these injuries are minor and leave no lasting effects; others, however, can result in permanent harm, which may include brain damage, amputated limbs, severe skin burns, and more.
Injured seamen can collect benefits for their pain and suffering. Which kinds of compensation they are eligible for depends on their ability to meet certain qualifications.
Definition of a Seaman
What is a seaman? This may seem to be a simple question, but, in fact, the courts have devoted a considerable amount of time and energy grappling with this matter. That’s because several maritime personal injury statues (such as the Jones Act) provide benefits only to those who can be legally classified as seamen, as opposed to a maritime worker who may be involved in support services. There are plenty of cases where the distinction is less than obvious.
Do independent contractors have the same rights as salaried employees? What about people who load and unload cargo at a port but do not travel with the vessel? These are only a few instances where it can be difficult to determine the difference between a seaman (who is entitled to certain benefits) and a non-seaman (who is not).
As a general rule, you qualify as a seaman if your job requires you to spend a significant amount of your workday aboard a vessel—usually at least 30% to 35% of your shifts. The courts also give preference to those whose duties are closely involved with the vessel’s mission.
The Three Causes of Action for Seamen
The body of maritime law has developed over the course of centuries, going through various refinements as personal injury cases and other legal matters involving seamen came before the courts and drew the attention of legislators. Nowadays, maritime law provides maritime employees with three possible causes of action to obtain compensation for injuries sustained in connection with their employment. These are as follows:
- Maintenance and cure – This is a form of compensation that has been a part of general maritime law for literally centuries. It consists of two separate components. The first is maintenance, which is intended to cover the injured person’s day-to-day expenses during the recovery period. These payments, issued weekly, are meant to sustain a minimal standard of living and tend not to be a substantial sum; often it comes out to around $20-$30 per day. The second component is cure, which is intended to cover the injured person’s medical expenses (e.g., surgery, medications).
These funds are issued until the seaman reaches “maximum medical recovery” (MMR)—that is, the point where the person’s physical condition is not expected to improve any further. MMR does not necessarily imply that the seaman has returned to a pre-injury state; only that nothing more can be done for the person.
Maintenance and cure can be provided to seamen even if they are at fault for the circumstances that led to their injury or illness.
- Seaworthiness – Maritime employers must at all times maintain a “seaworthy” vessel. Their failure to do so can expose them to liability. What do we mean by seaworthy? Simply put, the vessel and its various appurtenances must be suited for travel on the seas. Seamen who are injured due to an unseaworthy vessel can collect financial compensation under general maritime law.
Examples of incidents that can prove unseaworthiness include, but are not limited to, the following:
- A seaman becomes injured from using old, defective equipment.
- A seaman becomes injured due to workplace errors committed by fellow seamen who were denied proper training for their duties.
- A seaman becomes injured because there are not enough crew members to handle important duties.
- A seaman becomes injured due to an absence of appropriate safety features or equipment.
- A seaman becomes injured from being forced to work without proper supervision.
It is important to understand that the owner of the vessel has an absolute duty to ensure seaworthiness. That means that the seaman does not need to demonstrate that the owner knew about or deliberately neglected to address the conditions that led to the incident in question.
- The Jones Act – The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which has come to be known as the Jones Act, is a federal statute that was intended to improve conditions in the maritime industry and to safeguard the role of the merchant marine. Among other things, the Jones Act is an important piece of legislation for seamen who become injured due to the negligence of their employers.
The Jones Act differs from the previous two causes of action in allowing the right to a jury trial (which is generally not a feature of admiralty law) and in requiring that the plaintiff show that the employer or another party is responsible for the injury or illness. It is not necessary for the other party to be fully responsible. As long as the employer bears partial responsibility—even just a little bit—then it will be possible for the seaman to win a Jones Act suit.
However, it must be understood that Jones Act cases use the standard of “comparative negligence” to determine the damages that are awarded to seamen. These damages will be reduced according to the degree of responsibility that seamen have for their conditions.
For example, if the court rules that the seaman’s injury is worth $50,000, this award will be reduced if the seaman was partly at fault for the incident. If the seaman was 50% at fault (which means the employer is responsible for the other 50%), then the award will be reduced by 50%, for a total of $25,000.
Aside from the Jones Act, there are other statues on the books that protect the rights of maritime employees. The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) is important because it extends workers’ compensation benefits to many types of maritime employees, such as longshoremen, who are generally excluded from Jones Act protections.
The Death On the High Seas Act (DOHSA) was passed to provide compensation for immediate family members of seamen who died while on the job. Your maritime attorney can help you figure out whether any given statute applies to your case.
Contact Our Maritime Lawyers Today
Maritime law is far from a straightforward matter. It can be difficult to understand all the factors that determine whether you have a valid personal injury case. That’s why you need experienced legal assistance. You can find it at Schechter, McElwee, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P. We are available 24/7 at 713-364-0723.