Jones Act Negligence and Unseaworthiness Explored in Louisiana Maritime Case

The Jones Act is officially titled the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 and was passed by Congress in response to concerns about the health of the Merchant Marine and to establish protections for sailors. Before the Jones Act, seamen who were injured had few options for recovering damages for their injuries, but now the Jones Act allows you, as an injured seaman, to obtain damages from your employer for the negligence of the ship owner, the captain, or fellow members of the crew.

A federal statute (46 U.S.C. § 688) extends the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA), which originally only applied to railway workers to seamen and it reads, in part, “[a]ny sailor who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment may, at his election, maintain an action for damages at law, with the right to trial by jury, and in such action all statutes of the United States modifying or extending the common-law right or remedy in cases of personal injury to railway employees shall apply…”

According to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for the State of Louisiana, “an employer is held to the standard of care of ‘ordinary prudence under the circumstances.’” Admiralty and maritime law can become increasingly complicated and it is important that you sufficiently prove to the court that your employer has breached the standard of care that is owed to you. In Lett v. Omega Protein, Inc., a recent case decided by the Fifth Circuit, the importance of having quality representation with experience in admiralty and maritime law is evident.

In this case, James Lett filed a lawsuit against his former employer, Omega Protein, Inc., and two of Omega’s fishing vessels. Mr. Lett asserted negligence claims, unseaworthiness claims, and claims for maintenance and cure. From 2007 to 2009, Mr. Lett worked for Omega Protein as a seaman and an engineer aboard several of Omega’s fishing vessels. Specifically, Mr. Lett was responsible for maintaining the engine room, which included chipping off rust from the floor for several hours using a needle gun. According to Mr. Lett, he sustained several injuries to his back and neck from this activity. The district court below dismissed all of Mr. Lett’s claims and granted summary judgment in favor of Omega Protein.

According to the Fifth Circuit, to establish a claim of unseaworthiness under general maritime law, an injured seaman must prove “that the owner has failed to provide a vessel, including her equipment and crew, which is reasonably fit and safe for the purposes for which it is to be used.” Lastly, to be successful on a claim of unseaworthiness, a seaman “must prove that the unseaworthy condition played a substantial part in bringing about or actually causing the injury and that the injury was either a direct result or a reasonable probable consequence of the unseaworthiness.”

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court and dismissed Mr. Lett’s claims. The Court concluded that Mr. Lett failed to create a genuine issue of material fact regarding his unseaworthiness claim because Lett failed to provide any evidence that the use of the needle gun aboard the vessel was unsafe. Rather, Mr. Lett pointed to the availability of safer rust-removing equipment, but the Court said that this evidence alone – without evidence indicating that the needle gun is unsafe – was not enough to create a genuine factual dispute regarding unseaworthiness. According to the Court, “a plaintiff must present sufficient evidence to raise a jury question whether a method of operation is unsafe, before a fully equipped vessel, with all its gear in good working order, can be rendered unseaworthy.”

This case illustrates the critical elements that must be established sufficiently to successfully bring an unseaworthiness claim. Experienced attorneys can help determine what evidence to use and how to apply it to your situation in admiralty cases.

If you were injured while working in the maritie community and wish to pursue a claim, please contact Berniard Law firm for assistance.