On-the-Job Injury at Sea: The Jones Act, Employer Negligence, and Claims for Unseaworthiness

In any workplace, an on-the-job injury can have serious repercussions, both medical and legal, for the injured employee and their employer. However, if the injured employee is a seaman, additional maritime laws and standards may apply when an injury occurs. For individuals working on ships, in shipyards, or in any industry covered by maritime law, knowledge of the protections and specific laws which apply in the event of injury is pivotal in order to be able to protect oneself.

The recent Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals case of Graham v. Offshore Specialty Fabricators, Inc. and Cashman Equipment Co. illustrates the importance of understanding the Jones Act, a federal law allowing seamen injured on the job to sue their employers, and claims alleging unseaworthiness of vessels. Graham was injured while working with a barge fleet on the Atchafalaya River near Morgan City, Louisiana. He and a co-worker were charged with the task of securing their employers deck barge. During this process, they needed to move other barges owned by Cashman Equipment Co. They crossed the deck of one such barge in order to reach and release the ship’s towline. Unbeknownst to the men, there were two large holes on the ship’s deck. Both men fell through one of the holes and both were seriously injured. Graham sued, and the lower court found in his favor. A jury awarded him damages. Both plaintiff and defendant appealed.

Graham brought his personal injury suit under the Jones Act. The Jones Act applies to any seaman who is injured or killed on the job and establishes his or her right to bring a civil action against an employer. The potential liability of the employer extends to all personal injuries sustained on the job, but the employee must prove negligence in order to recover. The duty of care owed by an employer under the Act is ordinary prudence. The ordinary prudence standard requires an employer to take reasonable care in maintaining a safe work environment under the circumstances particular to the case. To prove a claim of ordinary negligence, a claimant must prove that injury occurred and that the employer owed a duty to the injured, that the duty was breached, and that the breach caused the injury. The claimant must also show they themselves were exercising reasonable care in the course of their activities in order to recover. Graham presented evidence that the defendants were at fault for failing to properly maintain their ship deck. Based on this evidence, the appellate court held that the jury determination of damages on this issue should stand.

Graham also claimed unseaworthiness, citing the condition of the deck on the vessel which caused his injury. In maritime law, the owner of a ship has a duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. This duty is completely independent of the duty owed from an employer to an employee under the Jones Act. If the seaman making the allegation of unseaworthiness can prove that his injury was caused by the defective condition of the ship or its equipment, the employer is held strictly liable for the injury. Strict liability is applied without consideration of whether or not the employer exercised due care or was negligent. In other words, where the claimant can prove a violation to which strict liability attaches, the employer is held liable regardless of their actions. The claimant need only prove that the dangerous condition caused his injury in order to recover. The court in Graham’s case held he had sufficiently proven the condition of the ship caused his injury, and it held the jury’s damage award must stand.

If you or a loved one is employed in an industry covered by maritime law, it is imperative that you understand the often complex law which governs any injury that occurs on such a job. You need the services of an effective legal team to help you determine important issues such as whether you have a claim under the Jones Act. Contact the Berniard Law Firm online at laclaim.com and an attorney specializing personal injury will be able to assist you.

You can also reach us by calling toll-free at 1-866-574-8005.