Fifth Circuit Sides with Plaintiff in Jones Act suit for Injuries Sustained on Sea Vessel

The Jones Act deals with injuries suffered by employees working on American sea-going vessels and their rights to workers’ compensation for those injuries. The Act requires employers to “maintain a reasonably safe work environment.” Another important feature of the Jones Act is that not only is the employer liable for the negligence of their employees, but also any amount of negligence on the employer’s part will result in some level of liability. In other words, in a Jones Act case, if one employee negligently injures another, both the offendin employee and their employer are liable.

The case of Martinez v. Offshore Specialty Fabricators, Inc. deals with a Jones Act claim and really brings to light how important it is to obtain quality legal representation. Mr. Martinez was a seaman employed by Offshore Specialty Fabricators as a mechanic. On May 26, 2008, he and his supervisor, Mr. Smith, went aboard a ship owned by Offshore to repair a defective winch. Both Martinez and Smith testified that the work space was very cramped and required them to bend over while swinging a sledgehammer for almost an hour when suddenly Martinez felt a pop in his neck. Smith testified that he saw Martinez visibly twitch and asked what was wrong. Martinez informed him that something was wrong with his neck, and Smith immediately told him stop working.

Shortly after the injury he told an on-board medic about soreness in his arm due to using the sledgehammer. Two days later Martinez visited another medic and told him that he was unable to move his head or jaw without shooting pain in his neck and shoulder. He was also interviewed by a claims adjuster hired by Offshore and told the adjuster that his injury was due to the cramped working conditions and hammering.

Martinez visited several other doctors and they reached the conclusion that the incident on May 26th had led to a degenerative disc disease. An orthopedic surgeon determined that Martinez would be unable to do any activities that would require repetitive “bending, stooping, lifting, and carrying,” and a rehabilitation specialist concluded that Martinez’s chances of being able to return to his previous job as a mechanic or deckhand were poor.

Martinez brought a Jones Act suit against Offshore, and after a bench trial, the judge concluded that Offshore was negligent, that negligence contributed to Martinez’s injury, the ship he was working on was unseaworthy, and that unseaworthiness contributed substantially to Martinez’s injury. The district court found that Martinez was entitled to damages for both past and future lost wages and future pain and suffering. The district court also held that Martinez also contributed to his injury and found him to be contributorily negligent and decreased his award by 20%.

Under appeal, the 5th Circuit found that there was no clear error in the district court’s finding that Offshore negligently provided Martinez a workplace that was too cramped to safely work in and that actually increased his chance of injury. Both Martinez and his supervisor, Smith, testified about the cramped working conditions, but Offshore failed to call any witnesses to rebut their testimony.

Offshore also argued that they were not negligent as there was no evidence that they did no, or should have known, about the cramped working conditions. The Court points out that in Jones Act cases, the negligence of an employee is imputed to their employer. In this case, Smith testified as to the cramped working conditions and that he failed to fill out proper safety forms that might have prevented Martinez’s injury. This was enough for the 5th Circuit to determine that the district court did not err in finding Offshore negligent.

The 5th Circuit then moved to the issue of contributory negligence. Offshore argued that the district court erred in finding Martinez only 20% liable for his own injury. However, the Court states that none of the cases that Offshore cited or mentioned actually establish or led to the conclusion that the district court erred. This element, or lack thereof, led the 5th Circuit to uphold the district court’s finding of contributory negligence.

The final issue addressed by the 5th Circuit was Offshore’s argument that the district court had clearly erred in calculating Martinez’s lost wages. Offshore argued that there was no actual basis for determining that Martinez would be unable to return to his previous mechanic’s job and that he would be able to return to the same type of work. Martinez pointed out that several doctors had determined that he would be unable to peform certain repetitive physical activities that would be required of a mechanic or similar types of work. The Court concludes that Martinez provided enough proof to overcome Offshore’s argument.

Offshore also argued that the method the district court used to calculate Martinez’s lost wages is clearly erroneous. They argued that an average of several years should be used, instead of the amount Martinez earned in the previous year. This was important because Martinez had gone from an average salary of about $8,400 the previous forty years to about $45,000 the year before his injury. The Court again sides against Offshore and state that the cases cited by Offshore did not actually back up their arguments, and thus were not persuasive to the Court at all. The Court finally determined that the district court’s reasoning was not clearly erroneous and affirms the judgment of the district court in favor of Martinez.

The big takeaway from this case is that quality representation is absolutely vital. Offshore had several major legal gaps in their case that heavily influenced the Court’s decision. While it’s unclear why Offshore did not feature these elements, it demonstrates the complexity within a case and why hiring an attorney that reviews each angle is inherently necessary.

The quality of legal representation provided by the Berniard Law Firm is a point of pride for everyone associated with our firm. Professionalism and integrity are our trademarks. If you need quality representation, contact the Berniard Law Firm today to speak with someone about your case.