Jones Act and Seaworthiness Claims Heard by Court of Appeals

Being located on the coast, many southern Louisiana residents work aboard vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. While these jobs may pay well, they can also be extremely dangerous. Fortunately, maritime laws seek to protect ocean and river-going workers from conditions that pose health and safety risks. A recent case out of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit highlights some of these protective laws. In that case, an engineer aboard a diving vessel brought suit against his employer for numerous violations he claimed caused new and exacerbated already existing health conditions. The engineer first made three claims under the Jones Act.

The Jones Act essentially allows a maritime employee to sue his employer for personal injuries that result from negligence. The first claim the engineer made under this Act was that his employer failed to give him adequate rest periods. According to the Jones Act, every individual in charge of an engineer watch is to receive a 10 hour rest period in a 24-hour period. This regulation seeks to ensure that employees are properly rested and therefore attentive in their duties. In this case, though the engineer testified he worked 16 to 18-hour days, he failed to provide any objective evidence supporting his claim.

The second claim made under the Jones Act was that the engineer’s employer failed to provide qualified personnel to relieve the engineer from duty. When a qualified individual is available to cover another employee, fully rested and attentive employees remain on post. This ensures that conditions onboard the vessel remain safe. Here, however, the engineer testified that the other personnel aboard the vessel were qualified, capable and competent. In addition, the court held this section of the Jones Act to apply only when the work being performed is specialized. If the work being conducted is routine and simple the qualifications of the relieving person are inconsequential.

The final claim the engineer made under the Jones Act was that his employer failed to post a watch schedule. The argument was that by failing to post a watch schedule, the engineer did not know when he was supposed to take his rest time. However, the court found that it was up to the engineer to get his rest and the posting of a watch schedule could not compel him to rest. Therefore, a failure to post a watch schedule did not directly correlate to the engineer’s injuries. The court also found that the small size of the vessel exempted it from this requirement.

Employees harmed while working onboard a vessel can also bring suit for unseaworthiness. To be seaworthy, a vessel must be reasonably fit for its intended use. This means that a crew shortage, an unqualified crew or a physically damaged vessel can be reason for suit. Yet, to succeed on an unseaworthiness claim, a plaintiff must prove that the unseaworthiness was played a substantial part in bringing about the claimed injuries and the injury was a direct result or a reasonably probable consequence of the unseaworthiness.

When an individual succeeds on a Jones Act or seaworthiness claim, he can obtain compensation for numerous harms. Medical costs, pain and suffering and lost wages can all be recovered and can, thus, receive the best care possible without the stress of mounting debt. Victims should be able to focus on their physical and emotional recovery – a successful lawsuit allows this to happen.

Since employment aboard sea-going vessels can be dangerous, the law does its best to protect employees from unsafe conditions. Employers are well aware of the Jones Act’s requirements and the need for seaworthiness. When these companies fail to protect their employees, they should pay for the harm they have caused. Yet, these cases are often very complex and best left to an experienced maritime attorney.

If you have been harmed aboard a sea-going vessel, please contact the Berniard Law Firm.