If you are a commercial fisherman or other type of seaman who was injured at work, you may wonder how the Jones Act claim process works. Here is a summary of the major steps that take place in almost every Jones Act case. (Get the basics on these kinds of cases in our companion article Overview of the Jones Act and Seamen's Injuries.)
Report the Injury
Federal maritime law requires injured seamen to report any work-related injury within seven days, but you should not wait that long.
If you get hurt while at work, either out at sea or on land, you should report the injury to the captain or some other supervisor as soon as possible. Insurers, and particularly Jones Act insurers, don’t like cases where the accident doesn’t get reported immediately. They assume that, if you didn’t report the accident immediately, you weren’t really all that hurt. Don’t wait. If you get hurt while working and you think that your injury has the slightest chance of causing you to miss any work, report it immediately.
Your Company (or an Insurer) Will Ask for Your Statement
If you are a merchant mariner, your company will generally require you to fill out an accident report. You should fill out the report as best you can if you are able to do so. If you are unable to fill it out because you are on medication, then you shouldn’t fill it out. Tell them that you’ll fill it out later, when you are feeling better. Company accident report forms almost always have a section for who is at fault. This is a difficult section. If you don’t write that the company was at fault, that may hinder your ability to prosecute a Jones Act case later.
But if you do write that the company was at fault and it turns out that you had a very minor injury such that you don’t even bother with a Jones Act claim, then you may find that the company does not rehire you for another trip. If you don’t feel comfortable writing that the company was at fault, then you should at least write that you are not sure who was at fault and that you will need to think about it more when you get off of the vessel.
Whether you are a merchant mariner or a commercial fisherman, the insurer will almost always try to get you to give a written and/or tape recorded statement. Try not to give one. As a general rule, nothing good ever happens when an injured Jones Act seaman gives the insurance company a statement. Do what you can to get off of your ship and away from the dock or hospital without giving the insurer a statement.
Get Medical Treatment
If you are injured, then you need to get medical treatment. Regardless of where you get hurt, a maritime employer must ensure that injured employees get proper care. If you get badly hurt at sea within helicopter range, the ship should have the Coast Guard med-evac you to a hospital. If you are far out at sea and coming back to the United States, then a Coast Guard helicopter might pick you up as soon as you come within range. Meanwhile, the ship has the obligation to consult with a physician by phone or radio if your condition is really serious. If you are in a foreign country, your ship must get you proper medical treatment and get you home.
Either way, once you return to the United States, you should take control of your own treatment. Make sure to see a doctor, make sure to follow all of the doctor’s orders, and make sure not to miss any appointments.
If you miss doctor’s appointments, the insurer will think that you have recovered. If you do not follow your doctor’s advice, the insurer may have an investigator follow you around and take pictures or videos of you doing something that is inconsistent with your doctor’s advice.
Your medical records will play a big part in your claim, so it's important to get prompt and thorough treatment.
Decide Whether You Need to Hire a Lawyer
As a general rule, you need to hire a lawyer in a Jones Act case if the insurer is not paying your maintenance and cure, if you are having trouble getting medical treatment, or if the potential settlement value of the case is more than approximately $15,000 to $20,000.
Settle the Case or File Suit
You never want to settle a Jones Act case until you have finished your medical treatment and reached a point of maximum medical improvement. This is because you don’t know how much you should settle for until you know how well you will recover from your injury.
In fact, you should not settle a Jones Act case until you have actually returned to work. If you return to work before settling, you give yourself a chance to see if you really did recover well enough to go back to work. Maritime work is physical work, and you won’t know if you really can do it again after an injury until you have gone back and tried it.
If you can’t settle the case, then you have to file a lawsuit. In most courts, it will take approximately 14 to 16 months after filing suit for a Jones Act case to get to trial.