As Mainers, we are fortunate to live in the state with the third-longest coastline in the continental U.S., trailing only Florida and California. This offers many the opportunity to work at sea in fishing, maritime construction, shipping, oil, and many other industries.
However, as anyone who has spent time at sea knows, these maritime positions can pose serious risks—often to life and limb—which are uncommon in most land-based positions. Fortunately, several federal and state laws recognize the dangerous nature of these jobs, and they provide maritime workers with special protections.
No law is more important in this regard than the Jones Act of 1920, which gives injured maritime workers a powerful legal right that is usually denied to land-based workers: the right to sue their employer for injuries caused by the employer’s unsafe conduct.
The Power of the Jones Act
In the U.S., the Workers’ Compensation Program, overseen by the Department of Labor, prevents virtually all land-based employees from suing their employer, even when their injuries were caused by horrible work conditions or employer carelessness.
By contrast, the Jones Act expressly permits that “[a] seaman injured in the course of employment may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer.” (46 U.S.C. § 30104)
Additionally, when workers prevail in such lawsuits, the Jones Act entitles them to broad categories of damages— including lost future earnings, past and future medical expenses, past and future pain and suffering, and permanent impairment damages—unavailable to most land-based employees.
The injured maritime employee’s ability to sue his or her employer under the Jones Act is a rare and coveted jewel within the American legal system. At Berman & Simmons we have developed expertise in this area of the law and are absolutely committed to making the most of it for our clients.
Proving Negligence for Unsafe Conduct
Although the Jones Act makes broad recovery possible, injured maritime workers are not entitled to any compensation unless their attorney first succeeds in proving that the injuries were caused by employer negligence or unreasonable conduct.
At Berman & Simmons, we work to prove negligence and hold maritime employers accountable for a broad range of unsafe conduct, such as:
• The careless actions of a co-worker, whether deckhand or captain
• Inadequate training of the crew
• Faulty or defective nautical equipment
• Substandard safety devices or procedures
• Unseaworthiness of the vessel
We also know what it takes to recover full damages for our clients even when factors other than an employer’s negligence (such as unpredictably rough weather) played the primary role in causing our clients’ injuries. Our expertise in the application of the Jones Act enables us to obtain financial recoveries that are often far greater than would be possible for a land-based worker who had suffered the same injuries.
Expanding Jones Act Coverage
We pride ourselves in our ability to secure Jones Act protections for as many injured Mainers as possible. In order to qualify for Jones Act protection, a worker must be (1) a “seaman”; (2) “in the service of a vessel or group of vessels”; and (3) working within an “employer-employee relationship.”
These legal criteria are far more complex than they sound: Is a worker who spends only a fraction of his work hours at sea a “seaman”? What about the worker who is almost always at sea, but is injured on land? Are non-self-propelling structures such as barges, dredges, or oil rigs considered “vessels”? Is the worker who is paid “off the books” considered an employee?
Aggressive and intelligent lawyering is often the only difference between a court ruling that an injured worker is a “seaman” who can sue his employer, and a court ruling that the worker is “land-based” and has no right to sue. Our attorneys are able to secure “seaman” status for workers who may not even see themselves as maritime workers.
Attention to Detail
Jones Act cases are complex legal matters involving numerous challenges that can sink a case before less experienced attorneys can even recognize them.
For example, employers will often “helpfully” and quickly usher their injured maritime employees into the Workers’ Compensation Program because, under Maine law, an award of workers’ compensation benefits can permanently strip a maritime worker of the right to sue an employer under the Jones Act.
Federal law allows three years from the date of injury to file a Jones Act lawsuit. However, much faster action is often necessary to preserve critical evidence and eyewitness testimony, in order to achieve maximum recovery.
If your client has been injured while working at sea, don’t let them entrust their financial security to their employer, who has every reason to keep them in the dark. Contact us for a comprehensive assessment of potential Jones Act claims.
Applying Jones Act to El Faro Case
On October 1, 2015, in one of the worst maritime disasters in American history, the U.S.-flagged cargo ship SS El Faro sank—and its entire crew of 33 perished—near the Bahamas. The ship’s captain had refused to heed repeated weather warnings of fast-approaching Hurricane Joaquin.
Attorneys Benjamin Gideon and Dov Sacks represented two Maine families whose loved ones were lost at sea in this tragedy. In the intensive litigation against the shipping company that had employed the deceased crew, the Jones Act enabled them to successfully secure recovery on behalf of these devastated Maine families.