Negligence Under the Jones Act
Contemporary seamen often have to work under hazardous conditions that could easily lead to serious personal injury if circumstances on their vessel go even slightly awry. Many seamen sustain severe harm in environments that seem to be reasonably safe. An undetected gas leak that suddenly ignites, a conveyor belt that catches a wayward hand, a hatch negligently left open on the deck in a worker’s walking path—these are just a few simple scenarios that have landed seamen in the hospital.
When disaster strikes, injured seamen have several options when it comes to obtaining just compensation for the physical harm they suffered. What we will focus on here is the Jones Act, an approximately 100-year-old statute that provides seamen with financial recompense in proportion to the negligence of their employer. Who qualifies for the protections of the Jones Act? How are degrees of negligence calculated under its provisions? We’ll answer these and other questions below.
Causes of Action
The law recognizes three causes of action available to an injured seaman. These are the following:
Maintenance and Cure – This is financial compensation provided to a seaman irrespective of the degree of fault they assume for their injury, provided that the individual has not acted with willful negligence (e.g., intentionally tried to harm themselves). It is part of general maritime law, and it consists of two separate components: (1) maintenance and (2) cure. The first component, maintenance, refers to payments intended to make up for lost wages. The second component, cure, covers the seaman’s medical expenses.
Unseaworthiness – The employer responsible for the vessel on which seamen perform their duties is required by law to ensure that the ship is always seaworthy. A vessel can be ruled to be unseaworthy if it contains defective equipment, unsafe walkways, inadequate (or missing) safety gear, or other features that could lead to harm. The ship may also be considered unseaworthy under the law if its crew members were denied sufficient training.
Jones Act violations – If the employer is found to be in violation of the Jones Act, then the seaman is entitled to financial compensation similar to that provided by maintenance and cure. What’s the difference between the two causes of action? To qualify for compensation under the Jones Act, it must be shown that the employer is responsible for the seaman’s injury or illness. This is the statute that we will explore in more detail later on.
Keep in mind that it’s possible to invoke multiple claims of actions when pursuing a case against an employer. For example, an injured seaman can qualify for compensation under the provisions of maintenance and cure in addition to the Jones Act.
Overview of the Jones Act
The Jones Act, otherwise known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, was signed by President Woodrow Wilson in an effort to bolster the U.S. maritime commerce industry. This statute—still very much in force today—consists of a variety of laws governing a wide range of matters pertinent to this industry, but the only part that concerns our present discussion is 46 USC 30104: “Personal injury to or death of seamen.” This section legally endows “a seaman injured in the course of employment… with the right of trial by jury, against the employer.”
Definition of a Seaman According to the Jones Act
The Jones Act grants important rights to seamen who seek compensation for their on-the-job injuries—but who does this statute classify as a seaman? The question isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
For example, if the employee is an independent contractor rather than a salaried employee, should he or she be considered a seaman who is entitled to Jones Act protections? (Incidentally, judges often rule that this is indeed the case.)
What about someone whose job duties only infrequently bring them on board a vessel? When Jones Act cases go through the courts, it must be determined whether the plaintiff qualifies as a seaman. What the courts tend to look at is the nature of the employee’s role on the vessel (e.g., whether they perform duties essential for the operation of the ship) and the length of their employment.
Negligence and the Jones Act
Now we arrive at the heart of the issue: negligence. The primary distinction between maintenance and cure compensation and Jones Act compensation is that while the former does not depend on proving employer negligence, the latter does.
To prevail in a Jones Act case, the plaintiff must prove four separate elements relating to negligence:
- Duty – It must be shown that the employer had a duty of care—e.g., the responsibility to provide reasonable training, properly functioning equipment, and acceptable safety practices. Under general maritime law, the employer has a non-negotiable duty to maintain a seaworthy vessel.
- Breach – It must be shown that the employer violated this duty of care.
- Causation – It must be shown that the employee’s injury or illness was caused by this breach. In Jones Act cases, this element is governed by the standard of so-called featherweight causation, which means that even slight negligence on the behalf of the defendant is enough to prove liability.
- Damages – It must be shown that the employee suffered real harm. An injury that does not require the employee to miss work or seek medical aid would probably fail to meet this standard.
These four elements are common to all negligence cases, not merely those involving the Jones Act.
Comparative Negligence Under the Jones Act
Comparative negligence is the idea that financial compensation for personal injury should be calculated according to the degree of responsibility borne by each party. It is the standard recognized by the Jones Act and used to determine financial compensation in these cases.
Here’s an example. If a plaintiff is ruled to be 40% responsible for their injury, then the amount awarded by the court will be lowered by 40%. Let’s say that their injury is determined to be worth $100,000. The plaintiff will receive only $60,000, as their partial responsibility for their condition is factored into the payout.
In many negligence cases that do not involve the Jones Act, the plaintiff must prove that the other party’s negligence was the primary cause of the illness or injury under consideration. Not so with Jones Act cases. The employer can be found to be negligent even when the seaman is chiefly at fault for their injury.
In fact, the plaintiff can prevail in a Jones Act case even if it is shown that they bear almost all of the responsibility for the incident under consideration. However, in these instances, the court will sharply reduce the monetary award to be granted to the plaintiff.
If the seaman is found to be entirely responsible for their injury, then no compensation will be awarded. Nonetheless, the seaman may still qualify for maintenance and cure payments.
Negligence Per Se
The doctrine of negligence per se constitutes an exception to the standard of comparative negligence. This simply means that the employer will be found entirely responsible for a seaman’s injury if it is found to result from the employer’s violation of a safety statute. It does not matter if the employee may have been partly at fault for the harm they sustained—the employer’s failure to abide by these safety laws supersedes these considerations.
Damages Under the Jones Act
When calculating damages to be awarded to the injured seaman, the courts consider multiple factors, including lost wages, pain and suffering, and medical expenses. The courts weigh not only the losses already incurred by the seaman but, also, if applicable, the projected diminishment of their future earning ability and quality of life.
If you or someone you know suffered significant injury as a result of employer’s violation of the Jones Act, you need to contact experienced legal professionals to analyze your case. You can contact Maintenance and Cure: Schechter, McElwee, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P., for a free confidential case evaluation.