Appeals Court Upholds Jones Act Claim for Seaman Injured Off Gulf Coast

The Jones Act is a law that provides seamen the chance to bring personal injury suits against the owners and operators of vessels they are working on in cases where the owner or operator was negligent or in some other way at fault for the injury. One of the types of damage allowable under the Jones Act is that of maintenance and cure. In maritime law, maintenance is the employee’s daily living expenses and cure is the employee’s medical bills. If an employer has to pay maintenance and cure, they will only have to pay such costs until the seaman is either fit for duty, or at a point where added medical treatment will not improve his condition. This case goes into further detail about what is necessary for a plaintiff to receive an award for maintenance and cure in a Jones Act case, and the relationship between maintenance and cure and worker’s compensation in Louisiana.

In this case, the plaintiff was performing sandblasting and plating work on an offshore rig. While performing this work, the plaintiff slept and ate aboard the M/V Howard McCall, stored equipment on the vessel, and used the vessel as a work platform on several occasions. After the initial work on the rig was done, the plaintiff was brought back to the vessel to perform sandblasting work on the vessel itself. During this period of work, the plaintiff sustained injuries while exiting the ship’s wheelhouse. The plaintiff soon began receiving payments from the Louisiana Worker’s Compensation Commission who was the employer’s insurer.

Subsequently the plaintiff filed suit against both of the owners and the operator of the vessel under the Jones Act. The plaintiff made three basic claims: 1) the owners and operator of the vessel were negligent in maintaining the safety of the vessel, 2) the vessel was unseaworthy, and 3) the owners and operators owed him costs for maintenance and cure. During the jury trial, the negligence and unseaworthiness claims were dismissed, and the remaining claim of maintenance and cure was the only claim left. The jury found in the plaintiff’s favor and awarded him awards of maintenance and cure. The defendants appealed the jury’s award.

The appellate court took up the case on two claims: 1) the plaintiff was not a seaman under the Jones Act, and therefore his claim should be dismissed, and 2) the trial court erred in not offsetting the maintenance and cure award by the amount the employer had previously paid the plaintiff under its workers compensation policy.

In order for a worker to succeed in a Jones Act claim, he must first meet the requirements set out in the Jones Act that classify who is considered a seaman. In order to be classified as a seaman under the Jones Act, the court will look towards such issues as: the worker’s duties aboard the vessel, the length of time the worker is connected to the vessel, and whether or not the worker performs work onboard the vessel or whether his work is performed on land and he only travels on the vessel. The penultimate inquiry is whether or not the worker in question is whether is actually a land-based employee who just happens to be onboard the vessel at the time of injury, or whether the worker is actually a member of the vessel’s crew.

The appellate court looked at the totality of the facts of the case and determined that the plaintiff was a seaman under the Jones Act. The court pointed to several facts to backup its decision. First, the majority of the plaintiff’s work for his employer was sea-based and a good percentage of that work was performed on the vessel. Second, the plaintiff and other members of the crew slept, ate, and stored equipment on the vessel. Finally, the plaintiff was brought back aboard the vessel to perform further work on the vessel itself. These facts led the appellate court to determine that there was no merit to the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff was not a seaman under the Jones Act.

Having determined that the plaintiff was indeed covered by the Jones Act, the appellate court turned to the argument regarding the jury’s award for maintenance and cure. The employer claimed that the jury erred by not offsetting the award for maintenance and cure by the employer’s previous payment to the plaintiff under its workers’ compensation policy.

The court pointed out that the Supreme Court has held that an action for damages under the Jones Act is the seaman’s exclusive remedy for personal injury during his employment. Consequently, any recovery of damages under the Jones Act must be reduced by any payments the plaintiff received from a state workers’ compensation law.

In this case, the appellate court found that the employer had not paid anything to the plaintiff except through its insurer, and was therefore not entitled to any offsets for funds it had not paid. The appellate court pointed out that the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Commission, which sought to intervene in this case, might have a claim for some type of offset, but that was not an issue in this particular appeal.

As the above case shows, Jones Act claims can be extremely complicated, and require high quality legal representation.

The Berniard Law Firm has a team of highly qualified legal professionals to take care of your legal needs.