Suffered an injury as a U.S. maritime industry worker? No matter if you’re a “seaman” or you work onshore, start here to understand what laws are there to give you protection.
In the maritime industry, there are two types of workers: seamen, or members of a boat or crew, and land-based workers, which includes anyone from longshoremen to ship repairman and drivers of trucks that haul containers away from the vessel. In case of accident and injury, your entitlement to compensation will vary depending on your job type and your circumstances.
Today, we’ll look at the basics of maritime workplace injuries in the U.S., as well as the key federal and state laws that entitle maritime workers to compensation.
Compensation for Seamen
Seamen are workers who spend a significant portion of their time as a crew member on a vessel in navigation and in navigable waters. As a rule of thumb, a seaman spends over 30% of their time at sea, no matter if on one vessel or on a fleet of vessels.
“In navigation” is a specific legal term that means the vessel must be afloat, in operation, capable of moving, and on navigable waters. A vessel in navigation can be tied up at a dock or mooring, but cannot be out of the water up on blocks or in a dry dock.
“Navigable waters” refers to waters, say a river or lake, that can be used for interstate or foreign commerce. The ocean and all waters connected directly into it are navigable waters.
Do you qualify as a seaman? Read our “Who Qualifies as a Seaman Under the Jones Act?” article.
If you’re a seaman — and you suffered injury on the job — you generally have three legal options to receive compensation:
- You can sue your employer for negligence under the Jones Act, a federal law that regulates maritime commerce in the U.S. The law is also known as The Merchant Marine Act of 1920.
- You can sue the owner of the vessel, on which you suffered the injury, for damages under the federal maritime doctrine of unseaworthiness.
- No matter if the accident was your employer’s fault, the boat owner’s fault, or your personal fault, you’re entitled to receive maintenance and cure.
This is a non-exhaustive list intended for informational purposes. To discuss the specifics of your injury and case, please consult with your maritime attorney.
Let’s examine each of the three legal options above in more detail.
Negligence under the Jones Act
The Jones Act is a federal law that gives seamen, who were injured on the job, the right to sue their employer for negligence damages. According to the Jones Act, your employer must (1) provide you with a reasonably safe place to work and (2) use ordinary care to, under the circumstances, maintain and keep the vessel on which you’re working in a reasonably safe condition.
Almost any unsafe condition on a boat, ship, or any kind of vessel, can lead to liability under the Jones Act. Here’s a list of Jones Act cases that have been settled:
- A worker sustained injuries to his left eye when a hydraulic hose burst, spraying hydraulic fluid into his left eye while he was on shift at an oil rig. Though there was no medical problem diagnosed with his left eye, he continued to have blurred vision and sensitivity to light. A jury ultimately awarded him $1M (USD), which was reduced by the appellate court.
- A crew member suffered an injury to his ankle while working on a crane barge. An oxygen tank tipped over and stroke his ankle. He was offered to settle for $200k (USD) by his employer, but refused. At trial, the jury awarded him more than $2M (USD) in damages. Ultimately, the judge lowered the award, citing that it had been excessive.
- A seaman was awarded $2.5M (USD) by a jury after suffering severe injuries to his heel when a dockside crane that he was working on collapsed off of its pedestal, despite the fact that his injury occurred on land.
A seaworthy vessel is a ship whose hull, parts, and equipment are reasonably fit in design, maintenance, and character for their intended purpose. It is operated by a crew who is reasonably adequate and competent for the work assigned.
A vessel is unseaworthy if its hull or any of its parts and equipment is not reasonably fit for its intended purpose, and/or its crew if not reasonably adequate or competent to perform the work assigned. Here’s a list of examples of cases where vessels have qualified as unseaworthy:
- Old machinery or broken equipment/tools;
- Failure to perform regular equipment checks and/or maintenance routines;
- Access points to the vessel and/or vessel pathways are unsafe (e.g. worn steps, missing handrails or ladders, slippery surfaces);
- Decks are cluttered with unsecured items that could cause harm to crew members in unsafe conditions;
- Safety gear is missing, outdated, or improper;
- There’s missing, outdated, or improper safety gear;
- Crew members haven’t been trained, are behaving unprofessionally, or are inadequate for their work shifts. The number of crew members is not sufficient for the ship’s operations and crew’s safety.
As a rule of thumb, if the vessel does not provide you with safe and suitable appliances with which to perform your work, or with safe space in which to work, it can be considered unseaworthy in regards to you as a crew member.
Maintenance & Cure
An employer in the maritime industry is required by maritime law to provide care for injured workers, no matter whose fault the injury was. This care is separated into two categories: maintenance and cure.
In maritime law, maintenance is the daily living allowance provided to an injured maritime worker. Until medical recovery is in place, injured seamen have a right to compensation. Maintenance can include expenses such as your rent, mortgage, utility bills, property taxes, insurance costs, and food. However, it cannot include non-basic expenses such as cable subscription, Internet subscription, or gas costs.
Cure means your medical expenses. In the case of an injury, your employer must pay your medical expenses until you’ve reached a point of maximum medical improvement. Cure includes:
- Hospital and doctor bills;
- Surgery expenses;
- Medication expenses;
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan and CT (Computed Tomography) scan;
- Cost of medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, crutches, and others;
- Cost of transportation to and from medical appointments.
Compensation for Land-based Workers
The interests of land-based workers in the maritime industry are protected by the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. It is a federal law that governs compensation for workers who work “on, near, or adjacent to navigable water,” and on adjoining piers, wharfs, dry docks, terminals, or other areas customarily used by an employer in loading, unloading, repairing, dismantling, or building a vessel. The act excludes seamen, that is to say workers who are members of a crew).
The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act protects workers such as longshoremen (and other workers who assist in loading/unloading of vessels), ship builders and ship repairmen, as well as ship breakers.
Even the drivers of trucks that haul containers away from the ships, or the mechanics who repair these trucks, are entitled to benefits under the act because they also contribute to the maritime nature of their employers’ business.
Here’s a few examples of settled cases under the Longshore Act:
- A shipyard electrician was awarded 100% weekly compensation benefits for a back injury, with benefits continuing for close to 8 years. Eventually, he settled the case with his employer for $530k (USD) for the value of future benefits.
- A marine terminal crane operator suffered a back injury. He went through two surgeries, but they did not eliminate his lumbar back pain. Because of this pain, he had to terminate work as he was unable to work full duty. The case was presented to a Longshore Act judge for several hearings and was settled for $400K (USD).
The federal act allows injured maritime employees to file claims under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act and a state workers’ compensation act for one and the same injury. You can then proceed through both the federal and state systems at the same time, although you cannot receive double benefits. However, some states will not allow you to proceed under both systems.
How to Proceed
If you’re a maritime worker — no matter if you’re a seaman or you’re land based — and you’ve suffered an injury at work, there’s federal and state laws that allow you to make a claim and potentially entitle you to a compensation. For seaman, that’s the Jones Act. For land-based workers, that’s the Longshore Act.
In case of an injury at work, consult with your maritime lawyer to understand and decide how to act on the legal options specific to your case.