When an injury occurs at sea, seamen, fishermen, and others injured on vessels often need help protecting their rights, obtaining medical care, and dealing with vessel employers or owners who may not be acting in the injured person’s interest. This is where a maritime lawyer can assist and ensure that those injured at sea receive the help they need and fair compensation for their injuries. Maritime attorneys have unique experience litigating maintenance and cure, seaman injury claims under the Jones Act, fishing boat injuries, cases under the Death on the High Seas Act, recreational boating accidents, and other issues of maritime law that are foreign to many personal injury attorneys.
Below are a few of the laws and claims that maritime lawyers address on a regular basis. Of note, the first three types of claims – maintenance & cure, Jones Act negligence, and unseaworthiness – only apply to injured individuals who qualify as “seamen” under maritime law. In general, a seaman is a crewmember on a vessel in navigation who spends a significant amount of time contributing to the vessel’s work and operations (a topic for a separate post). Maritime law also protects non-seamen, as discussed below.
Maintenance & Cure
“Maintenance and cure” is a fundamental right that obligates an injured seaman’s employer to pay two basic benefits for any injury on a vessel, regardless of who caused the injury or whether the injury is even related to the seaman’s work. This is a similar benefit to workers’ compensation but is unique to maritime law. “Maintenance” covers a seaman’s daily costs of living while they are treating for and recuperating from an injury on a vessel. It includes costs such as rent or mortgage payments, utilities, and food. “Cure” covers all of a seaman’s medical care for the vessel injury including surgeries, physical therapy, hospital stays, medicine, and medical devices or equipment. An employer must pay maintenance and cure to an injured seaman until the seaman reaches “maximum medical improvement,” meaning either that the seaman’s injury has been fully treated or that the seaman’s medical condition will not improve through further treatment.
Maintenance and cure is available for an injury or illness that occurs or becomes symptomatic while a seaman is working in service of a vessel. It can cover injuries and illnesses as varied as a broken bone caused by a fall on a slippery working deck or cancer that becomes symptomatic while the seaman is working on the boat. Maintenance and cure can also cover preexisting health problems that have resolved or are under control but then become aggravated by or reoccur during a seaman’s service on a vessel. A maritime lawyer can ensure that injured seamen receive an appropriate daily rate for “maintenance” and that all required medical care is covered by “cure.”
Jones Act Negligence Claims
If a seaman’s or fisherman’s injury occurs as a result of the negligent acts of the vessel employer or an unreasonably dangerous condition on the boat, then the seaman may have a negligence claim against the employer under the Jones Act, 46 U.S. Code § 30104. The vessel employer’s basic duty under the Jones Act is to provide seamen with reasonably safe place to work and to use ordinary care to maintain the safety of the vessel. Jones Act claims can cover injuries resulting from any number of unsafe conditions or negligent acts ranging from leaking hydraulic oil on decks and improperly functioning net reels to a lack of appropriate crew training or hiring a crew member with a known history of violence.
In general, Jones Act negligence claims resemble typical land-based negligence claims. However, one significant difference is the lower burden of proof under the Jones Act for showing that a seaman’s injury was caused by the employer’s negligence. In typical injury claims such as car crashes, an injured person must show that another individual’s negligent conduct was the main cause of the injury. In contrast, under the Jones Act, an injured seaman only needs to demonstrate that the employer’s conduct played any part at all in causing the injuries. This lower standard of causation is often referred to as “featherweight” causation and eases the burden on the seaman to prove his case.
Another aspect of maritime law and seaman injury claims is the legal doctrine of unseaworthiness. This rule requires that the vessel owner – rather than a seaman’s employer – provide a vessel that is reasonably fit and safe for its intended purpose. If an unsafe condition on a vessel causes a seaman’s injury, than the vessel owner may be liable under an unseaworthiness claim. Often times, an unsafe condition may result in both a claim of unseaworthiness and Jones Act negligence. For example, if a vessel’s crane controls leak hydraulic oil on the deck and a seaman slips in the oil, the owner may be liable for the unfit condition of the hydraulic system while the employer may be liable for failing to ensure that the crew cleaned up the leaking oil or timely fixed the leak. Unseaworthiness covers not only the vessel itself but also its equipment and appurtenances such as reels, winches, nets, cranes, engines, tackle, ropes, and other integral parts of the vessel.
General Maritime Law Claims
As noted, the three types of claims above all apply to injured individuals who qualify as “seamen” under maritime law. But maritime law also protects individuals injured on vessels who do not qualify as “seamen” such as passengers on cruise ships, charter boats, and ferries, scientists working on research vessels, and others who do not spend significant time supporting a vessel’s work. Injuries to non-seamen are covered under a broad area of law referred to a “general maritime law.” The legal bases for negligence claims under general maritime law are similar to non-maritime negligence claims. However, because maritime claims involve facts and procedures specific to life on the water such as navigation rules, complicated maritime equipment, vessel operations, and sea and weather conditions, a maritime lawyer who has experience litigating these issues may be best suited to help individuals injured at sea.
The claims and legal issues above are only a few of those that maritime injury attorneys work on in their day-to-day practices. Other claims include the following
- Death on the High Seas Act, 46 U.S. Code § 30301 et seq.: This law governs deaths to individuals that occur more than three miles from shore. Damages under DHOSA are only available to a decedent’s spouse, parent, child, or dependent relative and are limited to pecuniary damages.
- Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, 18 U.S. Code § 901 et seq.: The LHWCA is a federal workers’ compensation system that covers longshore and harbor workers. These are shore-based workers who work on or support vessels in port by loading and unloading cargo or performing vessel repairs and maintenance, among other tasks. In addition to receiving workers’ compensation benefits, if a party other than a worker’s employer is responsible for an injury, the worker may sue the other party under section 905(b) of the Act.
- Recreational boating claims: In some cases, injuries to individuals operating, riding on, or struck by recreational watercraft may be subject to general maritime law. Whether a recreational boating accident falls under maritime law depends on (1) whether the accident occurred on navigable waters; (2) whether the accident had the potential to disrupt maritime commerce; and (3) whether there is a relationship to traditional maritime activity. Determining each of these questions often involves complicated legal analysis under esoteric points of maritime law.
When to Contact a Maritime Lawyer
If you have been injured at sea, whether working as a seaman, a fisherman, riding as a passenger on a vessel, or otherwise, contact a maritime lawyer to protect your rights and interests and to help you determine if maritime law applies. The attorneys at Trueb Berne & Beard, LLP have more than 60 years of combined experience practicing maritime law and are available 24/7 to discuss your potential claims at no cost to you.