Maritime Law Protections for Working Seamen
Working on a commercial vessel, whether offshore or on America’s inland waterways, is an inherently dangerous undertaking. Unique hazards exist in these environments, including the corrosive effects of salt water that can render a vessel unseaworthy in no time, rough seas that can shift cargo or knock a worker off the vessel, and inexperienced mariners that can increase the risk of hazards on the water. Thankfully, the U.S. government recognizes the lengths you go to get the job done and have enacted a host of laws that protect your rights.
Maritime laws include a series of legislative acts and common law judicial decisions, usually interpreting any unclear terms in the acts themselves. The most common maritime protections include:
- The Jones Act (a.k.a Merchant Mariner Act of 1920) Negligence Claims
- Maintenance and Cure Benefits
- Unseaworthiness Claims
- Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act Claims
- Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Claims
- Death on the High Seas Act Claims
Each of these protections apply to different types of seamen and offer specific benefits.
The Jones Act
The Jones Act protects seamen who are assigned to a commercial vessel or fleet of vessels and spend over 30% of their employed time in service of the vessel’s mission. The vessel does not have to be ocean going, but it must operate in commercially navigable waters. The Act enables mariners to sue their employers for injuries that result from the employer’s negligence. Land-based workers are not afforded the right to sue their employers directly and must take advantage of the workers’ compensation process.
The Act is unique to land-based law in a couple of ways. First, the negligence standard is far less difficult to meet for injured workers. If you are injured while on the vessel you are assigned to, and the injury was caused by a co-worker horsing around, that may rise to the level of negligence you need to prove to prevail in a Jones Act negligence case. Second, the types of damages available to Jones Act seamen are more expansive than that of land-based workers’ compensation claims.
Maintenance and Cure
Injured Jones Act seamen are entitled to payments while they are recovering to cover basic living expenses, transportation and healthcare costs (maintenance) along with sick pay (cure). Maritime employers have a duty to provide you with maintenance and cure while you are recovering from an illness or injury obtained while serving your vessel. If they do not, you have the right to sue your employer for these benefits. Negligence need not be proven to obtain maintenance and cure benefits.
Every vessel owners and operators have a duty to provide a seaworthy vessel to their crew. This means that the vessel itself, the equipment and cargo must be fit for their intended purpose and reasonably safe. If the vessel owner or operator violates a safety statute and you are injured, the judge may find that the vessel was per se unseaworthy. If you are injured due to an unseaworthy vessel, you may be entitled to past and future medical expenses, lost wages, retraining, pain and suffering and emotional trauma.
Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act Claims
The Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act (LHWCA) is a federal law that protects those maritime workers who are not seamen, but rather, those workers that unload and load cargo and repair or build vessels. The LHWCA compensates workers for medical care and retraining for workers disabled while on the job. It also provides death benefits to surviving spouses and children.
Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act
The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA, for short) extends the protections afforded under the LHWCA to oil rig workers and others working on the outer continental shelf.
Death on the High Seas Act
The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA, for short) provides financial compensation to those maritime workers and passengers that have perished the high seas. It also provides a right of action to those surviving beneficiaries to sue for negligence that caused the death of their loved one. The death must have occurred more than 3 nautical miles from shore.
Maritime workers who are injured while on duty have a variety of avenues to seek compensation for their injuries and usually fare better than their non-maritime counter-parts.