Working in the maritime industry has enticing perks such as great pay and work assignments that give you a chance to see the world. But the industry also has drawbacks, especially when you face a maritime injury, as it can be fatal—data collected by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) indicates that injuries among marine transportation workers are fatal at nearly six times the rate of all U.S. workers.
While the overall fatality rate is still relatively low—87 fatalities occurred from 2011 to 2017— there are still many types of injuries that can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, sometimes for the long term. That’s because the type of work environment and responsibilities involved in this industry present a number of unique physical, chemical, and psychosocial hazards.
If you’re a marine worker and have experienced a recent injury, you might be wondering if your case legally constitutes a maritime injury and what legal options are available to explore. We’ll cover both of those topics—and offer two important tips for filing a case—in this article.
Dealing with a maritime injury? Here’s what you need to know
What is a maritime injury?
In general, a maritime injury refers to any harm that occurs to a person on the water or in connection with maritime activities—in most cases, this term involves seamen or other maritime workers, though it can apply to people in recreational situations. For this post, we focus on workers in this industry. For example, an injury incurred by a seaman while offloading a docked vessel would be considered a maritime injury.
You can ask two questions to help easily determine whether you’re dealing with a maritime injury:
- Was the injured person employed on a vessel?
- Did the injury occur on navigable water?
While these questions can lend clarity to a number of cases, the determination is not always so cut and dry. Sometimes the exact classification of a “vessel” is unclear, and some injuries occur while a person is in the service of a vessel but not on the water.
Consider this example: You’re a seaman who is on a four-week hitch. While in port, you are injured in a car accident while heading to the local market to pick up groceries (“stores”) for the vessel and its crew. Since you’re still considered to be in the service of a vessel during a hitch—despite the injury not occurring on the water—this would be classified as a maritime personal injury.
Common Injuries & Accidents
Virtually any kind of injury or accident that happens on land can occur in a maritime context, but heavy manual labor in dynamic working conditions—moving, being over water, being exposed to the elements, etc.—make some injuries and accidents more common:
- Orthopedic injuries. These are usually associated with lots of manual labor and heavy lifting, so back injuries are the most common orthopedic injuries, especially for deckhands and tankermen.
- Slips, trips, and falls. These are typical hazards of the job, and they become more common and severe when the vessel is moving, in inclement weather, or the person is fatigued.
- Loss of limbs. Seamen often get their fingers, toes, or even entire arms or legs caught in equipment or a line.
- Fire and Explosions. While fire and explosions can happen on any vessel, they’re more common when the vessel is pushing or carrying petroleum products.
Common Sites for Maritime Injuries
Though these and other maritime injuries can occur offshore and on inland waters, most will occur on some type of commercial vessel:
- Drilling barges and drilling vessels
- Tug, tow, and push boats
- Offshore supply boats
- Dive support vessels
Essentially, if the vessel floats, it’s a potential site for maritime injuries, even when tied up to the dock or anchored at sea. However, there are exceptions where an injury wouldn’t be considered maritime—specifically when the vessel is not capable of sustaining commerce.
Maritime law under the Jones Act—which regulates maritime commerce in the U.S.—has always been more generous to seamen. At the time the Act was established, the industry wanted to encourage marine work. Legal protections were intended to safeguard seamen while in the service of a vessel, making sure they were properly compensated if injured.
A Jones Act claim is what is also known as a tort claim—tort is a civil law term for “wrong,” as in a wrong has occurred. On land, employees are precluded from suing their employers in tort and relegated to a worker’s compensation claim. On water, a seaman can bring a tort or Jones Act claim for negligence which, if proven, entitles the seaman to pain and suffering, mental anguish, past and future medicals, and past and future economic loss. In the simplest of terms, to recover, a seaman must prove that their employer (or fellow employee) was negligent and that this negligence was a cause of their injuries.
An example of negligence under the Jones Act includes a failure to comply with a duty required by law. Employers of seamen have a duty to provide their employees with a reasonably safe place to work. If a seaman was injured because his employer failed to furnish him with a reasonably safe place to work, or that his working conditions could have been made safe through the exercise of reasonable care, then the employer was negligent.
Another claim available to an injured seaman may be one for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law. Unseaworthiness generally indicates that the vessel’s state or environment contributed wholly or partially to an accident or injury. A seaworthy vessel is one that is reasonably fit for its intended use. What is “reasonably fit” is subject to debate, but in general, a vessel owner is obligated to adequately maintain the vessel, along with its decks, passageways, appliances, gear, tools, and parts.
A failed railing on a bunk bed, a supposed water-tight door that is actually not water-tight, lack of non-skid paint on a deck, and a broken winch are all conditions on a vessel that might be deemed unseaworthy. The question then becomes whether the unseaworthy condition was a cause of the seaman’s injury—if so, the vessel owner is liable.
The non-delegable duty of unseaworthiness extends to an employer’s obligation to provide a full and qualified complement of crew. Failure to do so can provide a situation known as the “unseaworthy seaman.” Examples of cases involving unworthy seamen, on the other hand, would be if your injury is caused by an unqualified coworker’s incompetence, or overwork due to an understaffed crew. Both would fall under the category of unseaworthiness, which calls for legal action.
Finally, a seaman with a maritime personal injury can not only sue for negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness under general maritime law, but also for what is known as maintenance and cure. Maintenance is meant to represent the value of the injured seaman’s meals and lodging while on the vessel, while cure refers to reasonable and necessary medical expenses incurred until the seaman reaches what’s known as “maximum medical improvement.”
The right to maintenance and cure extends to more than simply injuries or verifiable accidents on the vessel; as a seaman, you could suffer from an illness such as COVID, pneumonia, heart disease, or even brain cancer and still be protected. Essentially, if an illness “manifests” or the seaman shows symptoms during their service to the vessel, maintenance and cure is owed—even if that ailment is not directly caused by your job. Failure to pay maintenance and cure—if made without reason or arbitrarily, capriciously, or with willful disregard of the seaman’s condition—could subject the employer to punitive damages as well.
Maritime Injury Tips
Before you file your maritime injury lawsuit, consider two critical tips:
- File quickly. Although you have three years to file suit after the injury if you’re a Jones Act seaman, the sooner you file the greater opportunity you will have to ensure preservation of the evidence you will need to support your case. For non-seaman, the timeframe for filing suit could be shorter and may depend on the location of the accident.
- Hire a lawyer. Seeking legal counsel is critical with maritime cases as the law is different than when dealing with land-based cases. An experienced maritime personal injury lawyer will know about and consider tactics such as filing a lawsuit against the vessel itself (in rem) or seizing the vessel, which is especially important with foreign vessels that might leave and not return for some time.
For Maximum Maritime Injury Settlements, Choose Broussard Injury Lawyers
For 30 years, Broussard Injury Lawyers has been fighting the good fight in Louisiana. We know the maritime industry, we’ve handled maritime injury cases large and small, and we’re familiar with the organizations that govern and participate in the industry, such as the Coast Guard, AWO, IMO and OSHA.
We’ve also argued on both the defense and plaintiff sides of the table, so we know exactly how the defense operates and what tactics they’ll use in an attempt to give your case the runaround.
If you’re ready to file your maritime injury lawsuit or just want to learn more about how we can help you and your family, reach out here.