Working at sea is different in many respects from working on land, and this carries through to the laws that apply to maritime workers. This becomes apparent in cases involving workers who are injured at sea.
A typical terrestrial worker who has been injured in their workplace can rely on their state’s workers’ compensation system to provide them with benefits that will cover their medical costs and income while they are unable to return to work. These benefits are paid by the employer and its workers’ compensation insurance carrier.
In cases involving an injury that was caused by an employer’s negligence, the worker may be able to recover damages through a personal injury lawsuit. However, workers’ compensation is an exclusive remedy: If an injured worker collects workers’ compensation benefits, they cannot also recover damages through a lawsuit against the employer.
But state workers’ compensation laws don’t necessarily apply to people who work in shipping, fishing and other maritime industries. Many workers in the maritime industries are covered under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. Most seamen who work on vessels at sea are covered under a different law, the Jones Act.
The Jones Act
The Jones Act of 1920 controls many aspects of employment for workers aboard maritime vessels, and provides them with a method of applying for and receiving benefits that can pay for their medical care and provide them with income. In this sense, the Jones Act provides something similar to workers’ compensation, but the Jones Act’s system is very different.
Under the Jones Act, injured crew members can seek compensation for “maintenance and cure.” In this context, “maintenance” refers to the injured worker’s living expenses while the worker is unable to work. “Cure” refers to the medical expenses related to their injuries. Workers may also collect compensation for their lost wages.
Negligence and unseaworthiness
An injured crew member may be able to recover additional damages if they can prove that their injury was the result of their employer’s negligence or the vessel’s unseaworthiness.
These damages include:
- Past and future medical costs
- Lost earning capacity (in the present and in the future)
- Pain and suffering
- Interest on these costs
- Found (a term referring to certain living expenses incurred by a crew member who is unable to live and work at sea)
Proving the negligence of an employer at sea is similar to proving negligence on land. “Unseaworthiness” is a term of maritime law that refers to safety standards aboard the ship.