Workplace injuries are common. While working at sea, workers can be injured or killed by moving equipment, falling ice, or any other hazards at sea. To exacerbate matters, medical care beyond treatment of basic elements may not be possible when a worker is injured at sea. Workers on land have workers’ compensation coverage to provide relief from medical bills and unemployment as well as a sophisticated tort system to seek recovery for other damages. Workers at sea do not have some of these benefits.
Plaintiffs may also seek recovery against the ship’s owner if the ship was not sea worthy. Ship owners have a duty to provide workers with a vessel that is reasonably fit for its intended use. To be seaworthy, a ship must also have a competent crew. If the ship, its furnishings, or its crew members are defective, the ship may not be sea worthy. The equipment does not have to be state of the art; it must merely be serviceable. If the plaintiff can prove that the ship was not sea worthy and that the condition that made the vessel not sea worthy was a substantial factor in causing the injury, the plaintiff may recover for his or her injuries.
If the employee was not injured as a result of his own gross negligence, the employee is entitled to maintenance and cure. Seamen are not normally covered under workers’ compensation statutes, but the effect of maintenance and cure is similar. Workers at sea are entitled to medical care and reasonable living expenses for the duration of the voyage. The medical care extends to the point of maximum cure, at which no one can reasonably expect any further improvement in the injured party’s condition.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920
Traditionally, seamen could not pursue civil actions for negligence against their employers for injuries suffered at sea. In 1920, the United States enacted the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, otherwise known as the Jones Act. This law extended the common law right of recovery to workers at sea. As Jones Act attorneys will tell you, to recover for damages under this Act, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had a duty that he or she breached, and that the breach caused an injury.
This was an expansion of the rights of seamen, but the Jones Act has some limitations. As with any negligence case, proving that the ship owner breached a duty will be essential to a successful claim; plaintiffs are not entitled to automatic recovery for just any injury. Additionally, the Jones Act specifically pertained to rights for seamen. This right does not extend to guests. To recover under the Jones Act, the plaintiff must have some type of permanent or enduring connection to the vessel and the plaintiff must contribute to the ship’s mission. In other words, the plaintiff must be a worker on the vessel in order to recover under the Jones Act.
Historically, workers at sea have had fewer avenues of recovery for injuries suffered on the open water than employees on land. The Jones Act expanded these rights considerably, granting seamen the right to bring standard tort actions subject to a three-year statute of limitations. After being injured at sea and returning to land, injured parties should contact an attorney experienced in maritime law. If the injury was caused by the negligence of another, the injured party may be entitled to damages.