A seaman who suffers injury while engaged in the service of a vessel has legal remedies which are unavailable to any other worker. Unlike the typical shore-based employee, who is generally limited to workers’ compensation benefits for injuries occurring in the course and scope of his employment, an injured seaman has the following remedies available to him or her:
- Maintenance and cure;
- A claim against the vessel owner for the vessel’s “unseaworthiness”; and,
- A claim against his/her employer under the Jones Act.
Maintenance and Cure
A seaman who is injured in the service of the vessel is entitled to “maintenance”; i.e., food and lodging of the kind and quality he would receive if he were still on board the vessel, until he reaches the point of maximum medical recovery. Maintenance is set at a daily rate, which amount may vary from place to place, depending on the cost of living in a particular locale. The maintenance rate is sometimes established by the seaman’s employment contract or by the applicable collective bargaining agreement. The shipowner’s duty to provide maintenance is coupled with the duty to provide the injured seaman with “cure”; i.e., proper medical care until he reaches the point of maximum medical recovery.
The seaman’s entitlement to maintenance and cure has been recognized for centuries, and is said to trace its origins to the Sea Codes of the Middle Ages. In America, the seaman’s need for special protection was recognized by our courts early on, as typified by the following excerpt from a case decided in 1823:
“Seamen are by the peculiarity of their lives liable to sudden sickness from change of climate, exposure to perils, and exhausting labour. They are generally poor and friendless, and acquire habits of gross indulgence, carelessness and improvidence. If some provision be not made for them in sickness at the expense of the ship, they must often in foreign ports suffer the accumulated evils of disease, and poverty and sometimes perish from the want of suitable nourishment…”
Harden v. Gordon, 11 F. Cas. 480, 483 (1823).
Notwithstanding the dramatic improvement in the seaman’s plight in the years since, the duty of the shipowner to provide maintenance and cure continues today. It is a right which courts will not allow a seaman to bargain away by contract. Nor is the seaman’s right to maintenance and cure dependent on proving that the shipowner was at fault for the injury. In fact, the seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure even if the accident was caused by the seaman’s own carelessness.
The shipowner’s obligation to provide maintenance and cure includes the obligation to pay the injured seaman the wages he would have earned through the end of the voyage on which the injury occurred.
A vessel owner has a legal duty to provide the vessel’s crew with a vessel which is fit for its intended use, that is, “seaworthy”. This condition, often described as a warranty, applies to the vessel itself, and extends to the vessel’s equipment as well. A seaman who is injured by some defect attributable to the vessel or its equipment will be entitled to recover damages based on the shipowner’s breach of the warranty of seaworthiness, even absent any proof that the shipowner was at fault for the unseaworthy condition. In legal terms, it is “liability without fault.”
A classic example of an unseaworthy condition is a mooring line which breaks under strain and injures a seaman. The vessel owner is liable to the injured seaman, even if the defective condition of the mooring line could not have been detected in advance. A seaman can prevail in court on this theory merely by showing that the warranty of seaworthiness was violated, and that he was injured as a result.
The shipowner’s duty to provide a seaworthy vessel, however, extends only to one who is a “seaman.” Passengers aboard a cruise ship, for example, are not entitled to a warranty of seaworthiness. Similarly, vendors or repairmen who are temporarily aboard a vessel to provide goods or services are not entitled to a seaworthy vessel either.
Negligence Claims under the Jones Act
Despite the law’s solicitude for seamen and the perils occasioned by their work, it was not until passage of the Jones Act, in 1920, that an injured seaman could sue his employer for injuries resulting from negligence. Prior to the Jones Act, for example, a seaman injured by the negligence of a fellow crewmember had no legal remedy beyond maintenance and cure. Passage of the Jones Act opened the courtroom doors to seamen injured as a result of their employer’s negligence.
In some cases, the existence of a Jones Act claim allows the injured seaman to add an additional defendant to his law suit, in instances in which the seaman’s employer is someone other than the vessel owner. This can be the case, for example, where the vessel is chartered (or leased) for a period of time, with the charterer providing the crew. In such instances, an injured seaman can assert an unseaworthiness claim against the vessel and its owner, and a separate Jones Act negligence claim against his or her employer, in the same legal proceeding.
The typical Jones Act claim will include allegations that the employer failed to provide the seaman with a safe place to work. A seaman who brings a Jones Act claim enjoys a relatively easy burden of proof in regard to the employer’s negligence; more than one court has described the proof component of a Jones Act case as being “featherweight”. And, unlike claims for unseaworthiness, which are typically confined to courts in admiralty, sitting without a jury, a Jones Act claim can be tried to a jury, even in state court if the seaman so chooses.
The Above Remedies Apply Only to “Seamen”
Not every worker aboard a vessel, however, can claim the status of seaman and take advantage of the legal protections described above. Numerous cases turn on whether the injured party can demonstrate he or she falls within the two-part definition of a “seaman”, that being, a person (1) whose duties contribute to the function of the vessel, or accomplishment of its mission, and (2) who has a substantial connection in terms of duration and nature to a vessel in navigation.
For the injured seaman, the availability of maintenance and cure, the warranty of seaworthiness and the remedies under the Jones Act provide a level of relief unavailable to workers in any other employment endeavor.
© 2/17/2015 Charles A. Ford of Hunt & Associates, P.C. All rights reserved.