The Doctrine of Unseaworthiness in Maritime Worker Injury Claims

worker in front of shipWhen it comes to incidents that cause significant personal injury to a maritime worker, there are essentially three individual causes of action or grounds for recovery – meaning a person’s legal theory that gives that individual the right to seek legal remedy. The three potential causes of action that may be claimed by an injured maritime worker are Maintenance and Cure, The Jones Act, and The Unseaworthiness Doctrine.

Generally speaking, an injury claim under the Maintenance and Cure cause of action entitles the injured worker to a living allowance that is sufficient enough to maintain him or herself in a manner comparable to that which he or she had received while aboard the ship, medical expenses up until the point of maximum recovery, and his or her regular wages for the duration of the trip during which he or she suffered the injury in question.

Recovery of damages under a Jones Act or Unseaworthiness claim is fundamentally identical due to the fact that the scope of each cause of action is essentially overlapping; for both of these grounds for recovery, an injured maritime worker is entitled to past and future medical expenses, past and future lost wages, and non-economic damages like pain and suffering and loss of essential services.

Difference Between Jones Act and Unseaworthiness Doctrine

The Jones Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1920, allows an injured maritime worker who is injured in the course of his employment by a ship owner or crew member’s negligence to recover damages for his injuries. In many states, injured workers are prohibited from suing their own employer directly for an injury regardless of negligence, and are therefore forced to go through the Workers Compensation process for relief. The Jones Act acknowledges the unique risks and dangers that maritime workers face and provides a separate avenue for relief on a federal level, trumping state Workers Compensation laws.

The doctrine of unseaworthiness, which falls under general federal maritime law and is separate from the Jones Act despite being very similar in scope, imposes upon a ship owner to provide workers with a vessel that is legally considered to be “seaworthy.” The doctrine of unseaworthiness does not hinge upon negligence, but rather on strict liability for any damages that might result from a failure to deliver on this duty of seaworthiness.

How Is ‘Seaworthiness’ Defined?

The ship owner and operator have an absolutely duty to provide their maritime employees with a “seaworthy” vessel, meaning that the vessel as a whole as well as its equipment are suitable in the use for which they are intended. By and large, “seaworthy” means that anything considered to be part of the ship or used in conjunction with the ship in the scope of the worker’s employment is required to be safe and in working order.

Common types of “unseaworthiness” conditions on board a ship or other type of vessel that might be involved in an injury claim include, but are not limited to:

  • Lack of proper equipment or safety accessories such as harnesses or fall protection
  • Slip or tripping hazards in walkways such as a lack of gripped walkways;
  • Poorly designed equipment such as doors that open up into walkways or block paths;
  • Lacking or poorly maintained access equipment such as a malfunctioning gangway;
  • Absence of adequate warning placards to indicate hazards and other safety risks;
  • Deteriorating or poorly-maintained equipment such as a broken ladder;

In addition to maintaining the equipment and features of a physical ship or vessel, a ship owner or operator is also required to provide an adequate crew in order to make the vessel seaworthy. Examples of unseaworthiness relating to the crew might include:

  • Failure to follow OSHA or Coast Guard guidelines and safety regulations;
  • Poorly-trained or untrained crew members that might lead to injury;
  • Insufficient number of crewmembers to safely accomplish tasks and duties;
  • Lacking or insufficient supervision from qualified crewmembers;
  • Absence of safety procedures such as fall protection guidelines;
  • Working excessive hours resulting in an inability to function in a safe manner;

In order for an injured maritime worker to be eligible for damages under the unseaworthiness doctrine, the injuries and other resulting damages must have been caused directly by unseaworthiness conditions such as those listed above. This is different from maintenance and cure, for example, which is a no-fault provision and may apply to an injured maritime worker regardless of whether the employer or another crew member is responsible for the incident that caused his or her injuries. 

 
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