Unseaworthiness, Negligence, and the Jones Act

When is a ship or vessel considered "unseaworthy," and how is an injury claim affected?

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Unlike almost all land-based workers, injured seamen are not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits under either state or federal law -- the only compensation that they are legally entitled to receive for their injuries comes through the Jones Act and the general maritime law.

Under the Jones Act, injured seamen can recover damages for their employer's negligence. Under the general maritime law, injured seamen can recover damages from the owner of the vessel on which they were injured if the vessel is deemed unseaworthy. We'll explore those two concepts in this article.

Negligence Claims Under the Jones Act

The Jones Act is a federal law that gives seamen who were injured in the course of their employment the right to sue their employer for negligence damages. Under the Jones Act, a maritime employer must provide the seaman with a reasonably safe place to work, and must use ordinary care to under the circumstances to maintain and keep the vessel on which the seaman works in a reasonably safe condition. (Learn more: What is The Jones Act?)

These are very strict requirements. Almost any unsafe condition on a vessel, however small, can lead to liability under the Jones Act. For example, an employer can be held liable under the Jones Act for such unsafe conditions as:

  • grease or oil on the deck
  • improperly maintained equipment
  • failure to provide the crew members with the proper equipment for them to do their work
  • failure to properly train the seaman or the crew, and
  • failure to require the crew to follow safe work methods.

The Very Low Burden of Causation Under the Jones Act

In standard negligence cases such as car accident cases -- and even in other types of maritime cases -- the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligence was the main cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

However, under the Jones Act, a plaintiff's burden for proving causation is much lower. In order to prove causation under the Jones Act, the plaintiff need only prove that the employer’s negligence played any part -- however small -- in the plaintiff's injuries. There could have been three other more significant causes of the injury, but the plaintiff would still be entitled to recover damages against a Jones Act employer as long as the employer’s negligence was even a 1% cause of the injury. This is sometimes referred to as "featherweight" causation.

Learn more about Making a Jones Act Claim.

Unseaworthiness

The word "unseaworthiness" is a term of art in the realm of maritime law. Its meaning in maritime law may differ slightly from its meaning in the marine industry.

Under maritime law, a seaworthy vessel is a ship whose hull, equipment and crew are reasonably adequate in design, maintenance and character to perform their intended functions in the operation of the ship.

Unseaworthiness does not necessarily mean that the vessel cannot sail or be navigated. A vessel is unseaworthy with respect to a seaman if it does not provide him with safe and suitable appliances with which to perform his work, and if it does not afford him a safe place in which to work.

So, the injured seaman does not have to prove that the entire vessel was unseaworthy or that it was in danger of sinking. All that the injured seaman needs to prove is that some condition or aspect of the vessel, equipment or crew was not reasonably fit for its intended purpose, and that he/she was injured as a result.

Let’s take a couple examples of this. If the engine breaks down and the vessel is sitting dead in the water until the engine can be repaired, it may be unseaworthy as far as the captain is concerned, but that does not automatically make the vessel unseaworthy for maritime law purposes.

Let’s say, however, that the vessel’s winch is old and failing, but that the vessel owner refuses to repair it. If the winch operator uses the winch to pick up something well within the winch’s capacity, but the old winch can’t handle it, and the object drops onto a crew member, that would constitute an unseaworthy condition. The vessel would be considered unseaworthy because its equipment is no longer reasonably adequate in design, maintenance or character to perform its intended function. A winch’s intended function is to pick up objects within its rated capacity. If it can’t do that anymore, for what reason, it is not reasonably adequate to perform its intended function.

Shipowner's Absolute Duty to Provide a Seaworthy Vessel

A shipowner owes to a seaman an absolute non-delegable duty to furnish him/her with a seaworthy vessel and a seaworthy crew. If the vessel, equipment, or crew are in any way inadequate for the purposes for which they are intended, and as a result of this inadequacy, the seaman is injured, the vessel is unseaworthy and the shipowner is responsible to the seaman in damages.

It is important to note here that it is not the seaman’s employer’s duty to provide him/her with a seaworthy vessel; it is the vessel owner’s duty. Therefore, an injured seaman has two potential targets for suing -- his/her employer and the owner of the vessel on which he/she was injured. Often, this is the same person or company, but sometimes they are two separate people or companies.

Learn more about Maritime Worker Injury Claims.

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