Maritime Personal Injury
On these pages of our website, we provide some general information on what is involved in a maritime personal injury case, what the law provides, and we outline the facts of a couple of our cases to illustrate the concepts. For advice on common problems faced by injured seamen/fishermen, go to our "Frequently Asked Questions" page or "What Do I Do If Injured At Sea" page.
There are four main categories of individuals injured at sea or in maritime settings:
- seamen or fishermen;
- longshoremen or Harborworkers;
- business invitees.
I. Seamen/fishermen. Most of our legal cases involve seamen. A seaman is a worker who works most of the time on a vessel or fleet of vessels doing the vessel's work. The most familiar examples of seamen are:
- fishermen on all sorts of vessels (crabbers, draggers, seiners, factory trawlers, longliners, trollers, gillneters, processors);
- tug and tow (deckhands, skippers, mates, engineers, cooks);
- merchant mariners;
- ferry workers.
However, seamen could also include cooks on boats, police harbor patrolmen, fire fighters on fire boats, dredge workers, oil rig workers, barge tenderers, watchmen. Even a musician and waiter on a passenger vessel could be a seaman.
A. Law of Seamen/Fishermen. There is no Worker's Comp. benefits or laws for an injured seaman or fisherman. Rather, the law which governs personal injuries to seamen and fishermen is known as the Jones Act and general maritime law.
B. Jones Act. Generally speaking, the Jones Act allows the seaman to bring a claim against his/her employer for the negligence which caused the injury.
1. Examples of negligence:
- Failure to provide safe equipment;
- Failure to maintain the vessel and equipment;
- Failure to hire a competent captain or crew;
- Failure to provide a safe place to work;
- Working in too heavy weather;
- Assigning inexperience crew to run equipment;
- Failure to follow safety rules;
- Ordering a seaman or fisherman to work excessive hours;
- Failure to provide prompt or adequate medical treatment;
- Failure to put guards on machinery;
- Failure to follow "lock out, tag out" procedures;
- Having a vessel undermanned or understaffed;
- Having crew do repetitive movements with hands which causes carpel tunnel or tendinitis;
- Having obstacles in pathways;
- Not maintaining or repairing deck boards;
- Not having the right equipment on board to do the job;
- Failure to provide appropriate clothing or gear;
- Failure to properly train the crew;
- Mistakes by fellow crewmembers, officers, staff.
2. Representative case.
A couple of years ago, we represented a young man who was hired to work as a deckhand on a crabber. The "greenhorn" is usually assigned the task of chopping bait and baiting the pots. Our client had worked 4 days of 18-20 hour shifts. One day, the baitchopper got plugged - the bait would not drop out of the bottom. So, our client stuck his hand into the baitchopper trying to loosen the plugged up glob of bait. The machine was still running. The blades in the baitchopper severely injured his hand.
We argued that the employer was negligent for (1) failing to properly teach this young seaman how to unclog a plugged baitchopper; (2) failing to allow the crew enough rest; and (3) failing to have a baitchopper with a shut off switch close by the machine.
The insurance company paid our client approximately $2m.
C. General Maritime Law and Unseaworthiness
In addition to the Jones Act, the seaman and fisherman can also bring claims for "unseaworthiness." Basically, if the vessel or its equipment is not "fit" or if the boat or her equipment is defective in some way, then the vessel would be unseaworthy.
1. Examples of Unseaworthiness:
- Equipment that failed under use;
- Broken planks or deck boards;
- Hydraulic fluid or oil on deck;
- Insufficient crew;
- Defective hull;
- Unreasonably slippery decks;
- Obstructions on deck;
- Tripping hazards;
- Defective or insufficient tools;
- Stairs being too steep or not having hand rails;
- Not having adequate lifesaving equipment on board;
- Dangerous machinery not being guarded.
2. Representative case.
A seaman on a barge was paying out the wire on an anchor winch. When he got close to the end of the wire, the bitter end of the wire came undone from the spool, whipped around the spool and struck the seaman in the head. He eventually died from his injuries. We argued that the barge was unseaworthy because the wire should not have let go from its moorings on the spool. We argued that the barge was not "reasonably fit."
The insurance company paid the seaman's widow approximately $3m.
D. Money Damages/Compensation for Personal Injures.
If the negligence of the seaman's employer or his fellow employees injured the seaman, or if the "unseaworthiness" of the boat injured a seaman, then the seaman can recover money damages. There is no limit or cap on these damages. We would be pleased to answer all your questions about the amount of money you may be able to receive following your injury. We offer a free initial consultation. Call our toll fee number 1-877-DECKLAW (1-877-332-5529) and speak to one of our experienced attorneys.
By way of a general outline, the following is a list of damages that may be recovered in a Jones Act (seaman, fisherman) case:
- medical costs and bills;
- all future medical costs related to your Jones Act injury;
- out-of-pocket costs of getting the medical attention you need;
- costs of employing someone to perform the housekeeping chores that the Jones Act seaman or fisherman would have done if he was no injured;
- past and future pain and suffering;
- costs of retraining;
- loss of enjoyment of life's activities;
- future loss of income;
- loss of earning capacity;
- emotional distress;
- post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);
- loss of fringe benefits;
- loss of enjoyment of life.
There are, unfortunately, several lawyers out there who will "guarantee" a result. There are no guarantees in the legal business. But, what we can do is bring our many years of experience to the table in our evaluation of cases. Our lawyers are not only experienced on decks of vessels, we are experienced in the courtroom. Before going to law school, most of our lawyers were involved in commercial fishing or seagoing work. Our lawyers go back as far as 1982 in the maritime practice of law.
E. Jury Trial or Judge Trial; State Court or Federal Court.
As we mentioned above, the seaman and fisherman have many favorable laws that help them after an injury. For instance, the seaman has the exclusive right to demand a jury, if he/she wants a jury to decide the case. The employer or shipowner can not demand a jury. Sometimes, we would rather have a judge decide a case. There are many reasons for this, but some cases are better off in front of a judge rather than a jury.
Also, the seaman and fisherman can choose to have their case tried in State Court or Federal Court. Again, there are sometimes facts in a case that dictate one choice or another. For instance, in State Court in Alaska, the winning party may collect a percentage of attorney's fees. In other words, the losing party can be ordered to pay a percentage of the winning party's attorney's fee. In a case of strong liability, filing in Alaska State Court can add to the damages that the insurance company must pay.
F. Insurance Companies.
Most cases which involve an injury to a seaman or fisherman also involve the boat owner's insurance company which will pay for the damages following an injury. The insurance companies usually appoint an "insurance adjuster" to handle your case. These people are skilled at their job - which is to protect the insurance company. Most often, insurance adjusters do an initial investigation as to how the accident happened. They will take statements from witnesses. They will also handle your medical bills and any benefits (maintenance). Their job is to take steps to minimize the amounts that the insurance company will have to pay. Insurance adjusters are not your friend. Do NOT provide them with a recorded or taped statement. They are skilled at getting you to say things that later will come back to bite you. Feel free to call us if an insurance adjuster "demands" that you provide a recorded statement - you do not have to.
In most cases, the insurance company makes all the major decisions about settling your case. Some fishermen and seamen think that bringing a lawsuit will take money from their employer's pocket. While multiple claims may affect rates, it is most often the insurance money that will pay for your injury damages. After all, that is why the boat owner bought insurance - to pay for your injuries.
We know how insurance companies operate and how they think. We have been dealing with the maritime insurance companies for nearly 25 years. Insurance companies are motivated by only one thing - saving money. You should be represented in order to get what you are owed.
G. Worker's Comp.
As we mentioned above, fishermen are not subject to worker's comp. There is one narrow exception. Fish processors who work on factory ships or barges while moored within three miles of Alaska are subject to both the Jones Act and Alaska State comp. If you are such a worker, you have a choice between both the Jones Act and Alaska State Comp. These workers are really the only exception. Except for this group of workers, all other seamen and fishermen are subject to the Jones Act. There are big differences between the Jones Act remedies and the Alaska State Comp benefits. Feel free to call us if your employer has placed you on worker's comp. You may have better benefits under the Jones Act.
II. Longshoremen and Harborworkers.
Another category of maritime worker is the longshoreman and harborworker. Generally speaking, a longshoreman is a worker who works on or near the water and loads, unloads, or ties up the vessel. A harborworker is a worker who works on or near the water and repairs, converts, builds, or breaks apart a vessel.
A longshoreman and harborworker who is injured on the job has a federal worker's comp system to rely upon. This system is not available to a seaman or fisherman. Similar to State Worker's Comp, the longshore and harborworker comp scheme is a "no-fault" system; meaning that if the worker is injured, he is entitled to the benefits under the law without proof of any liability.
In addition to the worker's comp benefits, the longshoreman and harborworker may be able to sue the shipowner for damages. The shipowner may be liable for the longshoreman's/harborworker's damages if the shipowner's negligence caused the injury. There are limitations on the shipowner's duty to the longshoreman and harborworker. So, if you are a longshoreman or harborworker injured on a vessel, give us a call and we can give you a good idea whether you have a good case against the shipowner.
Paying passengers on a boat or cruise may bring a claim and lawsuit against the boat owner. The boat owner can be sued for personal injuries if the boat owner's negligence causes an injury.
The passenger ticket is the contract for passage. In the contract, there is likely a one year time limitation to file. In other words, a lawsuit must be filed within one year of the injury or else the case can not be brought at all. There may also be a contractual notice period. The ticket/contract may require the injured passenger to give the boat owner notice of an injury within a period of time, e.g. 60 days. In addition, the ticket/contract may also provide that a lawsuit must be filed in a certain location. For instance, Holland America's ticket (at least as of the time this was written) has a ticket that requires injury lawsuits to be brought in courts in Seattle, where they are headquartered.
IV. Business Invitee.
This category of individuals injured in a maritime case is not that common. An example would be a surveyor who is invited aboard to inspect the vessel. If that "business invitee" is injured through the negligence of the vessel owner, then he/she may be able to bring a lawsuit under general maritime law.
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