Slight Standard of Causation is all That is Needed in Jones Act Cases

A recent Louisiana Court of Appeals decision provides a good discussion of the burden of proof required in Jones Act cases.

James Bancroft worked as a seaman on the M/V Captain Nick owned by Mitchell Offshore Marine when the ship collided with the Pan Am Caribe. Mr. Bancroft was thrown violently, and broke ribs and punctured a lung. The court ruled that the vessel was not seaworthy and therefore Mitchell owed Bancroft $65,000 in general damages as well as $8250 for wage loss. The trial court did not agree with Bancroft that the accident had aggravated a prior back injury. On appeal, Bancroft asserted that the trial court erred in applying the incorrect burden of proof to the causal element of his case, finding his spine injuries and spinal fusion were not caused by the accident, awarding unreasonably low damages for his injuries, and failing to award punitive damages against Mitchell, while Mitchell claimed the trial courts damage award was too high.

Under the Jones Act, seaman are provided with the same rights railway employees have under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act which provides that “every common carrier by railroad . . shall be liable in damages for such injury or death resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier.” 45 U.S.C. ยง 51. Under the Jones Act, seaman can recover when their employers’ negligence causes their injury. The standard of causation in both FELA and Jones Act cases is very low. The Supreme Court has used the word “slightest” to describe the standard of causation between employer negligence and employee injury. This means that if employer negligence played any part in producing injury or death, the employer will be held liable
In this case, Mitchell argued that the “slight” standard of causation required proof of that negligence by preponderance of the evidence, the more likely than not standard. However, because the case that Mitchell relied on goes against years of precedent, the Court of Appeals disagreed. As such, Bancroft only needed to prove that the injury he sustained was linked to Mitchell’s negligence by slight evidence. According to the Maritime Case of Stevens v. Omega Protein, Inc.:

Under the Jones Act and the general maritime law, when the defendants’ act aggravates or accelerates a pre-existing condition and renders a plaintiff unable to continue his work or awakens a dormant conditions that causes a plaintiff to experience pain when he did not suffer from pain or disability prior to the aggravation, defendant can be liable in full for the disability caused.”

As long as the plaintiff can prove a causal connection between the injury and the accident by the slight evidence standard the defendant will be held liable. The Court of Appeals found that the trial court here applied the correct burden of proof despite its use of the phrase “preponderance of the evidence.”

Bancroft also contended that the trial court erred in not finding that his spine injuries and surgical collision and again the Court of Appeals disagreed. The trial court set forth detailed reasons for their judgment and accurately describe Bancroft’s history of back problems, dating back to 1997 when he first visited a doctor for back pain. The history indicated that Bancroft had recurrent bouts of lower back pain, casting doubt on his claim that a latent problem was made symptomatic by the accident. Bancroft’s doctor was even of the opinion that the surgery he performed was for the injury that had been diagnosed prior to the accident. The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s exhaustive reasoning that the back injury and surgery were not caused by the accident. Bancroft failed to prove that his injury resulted from the accident, even by the slight standard of causation.

Even though the injury and surgery were not caused by the accident, however, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court did err n finding that no back pain was caused by the accident. It is clear Bancroft did suffer some back pain as a result of the accident, and this affected the Court’s determination regarding the trial court’s general damage award.

While damage awards are entitled to great weight and should rarely be reversed, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding damages to Bancroft for rib and chest injuries only. Medical records clearly showed that some back pain came from the accident. As such, the Court of Appeals awarded Bancroft an additional $25,000 in general damages for suffering he suffered related to back pain from the crash.

As this case demonstrates, the evidential standard required in Jones Act cases is very low, but there still must be a causal link between the accident and an injury upon which the plaintiff seeks to recover damages. If you are a seaman injured while at work it is essential you have an attorney who is able to demonstrate to a court that your injuries did in fact result from the accident and not some pre-existing condition.