Jones Act Protections Against Unseaworthy Vessels

No merchant mariner steps aboard a ship expecting it to be unseaworthy, faulty or unfit for purpose. As someone that prides yourself on being a competent member of a vessel’s crew, you expect that every other member of the crew is equally competent and trained to handle any emergency. The last thing on your mind is being paid to work on an unseaworthy vessel manned by an incompetent crew.

Sadly, some employers actually operate unseaworthy vessels and even knowingly hire incompetent merchant mariners to work on their vessels, leading to thousands of accidents every year.

The Doctrine of Unseaworthiness – What the Law Says

The doctrine of unseaworthiness was established to give injured merchant mariners a legal course of action against employers who do not maintain their ships’ in a seaworthy condition. According to the doctrine, the operator of a vessel owes an absolute duty to maintain a seaworthy vessel.

A seaworthy vessel is one whose parts and equipment are fit for an intended purpose and is operated by a competent crew. An unseaworthy vessel is one whose parts and equipment are unfit for it’s stated purpose, or whose crew is not competent to operate it.

Unseaworthiness does not necessarily mean that a ship has to be incapable of operating. Actually, even a functional ship or boat can be unseaworthy if some of its parts or equipment are unfit for its’ purpose. For example, worn out ladders, lack of fall protection and drawer doors that slide open as the ship moves are enough to render a ship unseaworthy.

Other examples of unseaworthiness include:

  • Poorly designed equipment such as pad eyes or cargo elevator systems
  • Dangerous slipping or tripping surfaces such as lines on pathways
  • Insufficient warning signs for hazardous compartments

Besides the equipment, a ship can also be unseaworthy if its crew is not competent enough to operate it. A crew is incompetent if it is:

  • Hired negligently
  • Not trained on how to operate a vessel
  • Inadequately staffed
  • Lacking knowledge of basic safety procedures

When Unseaworthiness Leads to Injury

If you or a fellow merchant mariner is injured in the course of work because of a ship’s unseaworthiness, then you have a right to bring an unseaworthiness claim against your employer and recover damages for lost wages, medical expenses, disability, pain and suffering, loss of consortium and any other damages suffered.

If the unseaworthiness of a ship caused the death of a fellow maritime worker, then the family of the deceased can institute an unseaworthiness claim against the employer seeking the above damages and any others.

Proving Your Injury Was Caused by an Unseaworthy Vessel

A ship owner’s duty to ensure a vessel is seaworthy is absolute. This means that a ship owner will be liable for injury or death as a result of a ship’s unseaworthiness, whether or not he was aware that the vessel was not fit for operation. All you, the injured merchant mariner, have to prove is that:

  • You were a qualified seaman
  • It is more likely than not that the ship was unseaworthy
  • Its unseaworthiness was a substantial cause of your injury.

Comparing Jones Act Negligence Claims to Claims of Unseaworthiness

Unseaworthiness claims are separate from Jones Act negligence claims, and in some cases, you may sue under both types of claims. While most conditions that render a vessel unseaworthy are the result of negligence, you do not have to prove negligence in an unseaworthiness case. Unlike a Jones Act negligence claim, you are not entitled to a jury trial, but your damages are also not limited as they are in act cases. Damages recoverable under a Jones Act negligence claim are restricted to pain and suffering, healthcare bills, past and future wage loss, and disability.

As a qualified seaman, you are entitled to work in conditions that are reasonably safe given the dangers of working in a maritime environment. The Jones Act and other maritime laws help protect you from injury and provide you special rights in the event that you are injured while carrying out your duties to your vessel.

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