Admiralty and Maritime Law

When You've Been Injured at Sea

By Richard J. Davies, Attorney

If you've been injured at sea or on the water while working for your employer, you may have to file a claim under the Jones Act and general maritime law to be paid for your injuries. Unlike injuries on land, most injuries at sea or on the water aren't covered by state workers' compensation laws, unless the injury occurs within the territorial waters of a state.

Even if your injury is covered under state workers' compensation laws, the Jones Act and general maritime law will likely provide you with more benefits, and you may want to pursue a Jones Act case instead of a workers' compensation claim. Because of the complexity of these claims, it's best to consult with an experienced attorney who practices maritime law to make certain that your rights are fully protected.

Who is a "Seaman" Under the Jones Act and General Maritime Law?

To qualify for coverage under the Jones Act, you must meet the following test:

  • The vessel that you were injured on must be "in navigation" at sea or in a body of water that is connected to interstate or international commerce
  • You must spend a substantial part of your work time on board the vessel
  • You must contribute to the work of the vessel

A variety of workers may qualify for coverage under the Jones Act, including:

  • Fishermen
  • Fish processors
  • Tug boat workers
  • Barge workers
  • Cruise ship workers
  • Ferry boat workers
  • Transportation workers
  • River boat workers
  • Construction workers who work on vessels or barges
  • Oil platform workers
  • Commercial divers

How do I Establish a Maritime Injury Case?

You're entitled to compensation if an unseaworthy condition on board the vessel caused your injury. A condition is "unseaworthy" if the vessel, the crew, or the vessel's appliances are not "reasonably fit" for their intended purpose. This can occur if:

  • A piece of equipment is defective
  • The crew is inadequately trained
  • The number of persons assigned to complete a task is inadequate
  • A condition onboard the vessel is unsafe

You can also establish a case if you can show that your employer was negligent in causing the injury. Only "slight negligence" is required under the Jones Act. You can show negligence in a variety of ways, including:

  • Not following a safety statute
  • Not providing adequate equipment for a job
  • Engaging in a dangerous or unsafe method of work
  • Failure to provide adequate medical treatment after an injury
  • Failure to require the use of safety gear
  • Failure to correct an unsafe condition

You must prove that the unseaworthy condition or negligent act caused your injury.

What Compensation May I Collect?

You're entitled to what's called "maintenance, cure, and unearned wages" if your disability or injury occurred, was aggravated or manifested itself while you were in service of the vessel. A showing of negligence or unseaworthiness isn't required.

"Maintenance" is the reasonable amount required to cover your expenses in obtaining room and board ashore after an injury. Sometimes the amount an employer will pay for maintenance is set forth in the seaman's employment contract.

"Cure" is the cost of obtaining reasonable medical treatment for an injury. Your employer's obligation to pay maintenance and cure begins when you leave the vessel to recuperate and ends when your condition won't improve with additional medical treatment. This is sometime called the point of "maximum cure."

"Unearned wages" are wages that you would have earned until the end of the voyage but for your injury. An employer must pay your unearned wages until the end of the voyage. Lost Wages

You're entitled to past and future lost wages caused by an unseaworthy condition or the negligence of your employer under the Jones Act and general maritime law. If you can't return to work at sea and accept a lower paying job on shore, you're entitled to the past and future loss of earning capacity caused by the injury. General Damages A seaman may collect general damages for pain and suffering, disfigurement, disability, and loss of enjoyment of life, under both the Jones Act and general maritime law.

What do I do if I'm Injured at Sea?

  • Report your injury to the captain at soon as possible
  • Get medical attention for your injuries from a qualified medical doctor
  • Collect the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of witnesses
  • Identify any unsafe condition that caused your injury
  • Consult with a lawyer who handles maritime personal injury cases about your rights
  • If your injury is or may become serious, do not settle your case without consulting with a maritime lawyer

Richard J. Davies is a maritime injury attorney with the Seattle law firm of Levinson, Friedman. He may be reached at RJD@admiralty.com.

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