If you are crew aboard a vessel you are well aware of the unique hazards shipboard life poses. Unlike the factory floor, carpeted office or soothing retail space, your working environment doesn't stay still and it's littered with hazards peculiar to the maritime context. Maritime accidents can and do happen. Crewmembers routinely interact with or work around winches, lines under tension, moving parts, and heaving decks. Aboard commercial vessels, crewmembers are often times expected to perform super-human feats in both good and bad weather. Oil leaks, icing conditions, and sea spray all work to make moving around your working environment treacherous. A crewmember's working environment can be a grim space and the potential for injury can be high making it wise for the crewmember to understand the general framework of his or her maritime legal rights.
Crewmembers possess a unique status in maritime law. They are afforded protections that no other individuals aboard vessels are entitled.
First, it is important to understand whether or not you are a crewmember. Because of the unique protections afforded those individuals that are, in fact, crewmembers, a lot of disputes arise over whether a person is, in fact, a crewmember. Generally speaking, and you'll want to review all the bits and pieces of your employment with an admiralty attorney, a crewmember performs traditional crewmember duties. In order to assert some claims, a crewmember must prove that he or she has a connection with a vessel in navigation (or a fleet or group of vessels) which is substantial in both duration and nature. And, the crewmember's duties must contribute to the vessel's function or accomplishment of its mission. Your status as a crewmember is sometimes not easily determined and you will, again, want to speak with an admiralty attorney who can help you make this determination.
Second, a claim for unseaworthiness. A vessel owner is obligated to maintain the vessel and its equipment in a seaworthy condition at all times. Put differently, a vessel and its equipment must be reasonably fit for its intended usage. Significantly, however, this duty to provide a seaworthy vessel only extends to crewmembers and it does NOT apply to passengers. (I capitalized the "not" because this concept is often not well understood.) If you are crew aboard a vessel and you are injured because the owner breached its duty to provide you a seaworthy vessel, you should speak with a maritime lawyer like John K. Fulweiler, Esq. What are some examples of unseaworthy conditions? A vessel can be unseaworthy for a wide and varied set of reasons. For instance, a vessel can be unseaworthy for being inadequately manned because an owner is obligated to provide a sufficient number of crew to perform a task. The failure to provide a vessel's crew with proper safety or working equipment can also render a vessel unseaworthy as can the lack of current charts or equipment manuals. Slippery decks, unsafe ladders or stairs, inadequate training, unreasonable work hours, broken equipment, vessel instability and a lack of safety procedures (or a failure to follow safety procedures) can also give rise to a finding of unseaworthiness. You know what? There are many ways that a vessel can be found unseaworthy and the circumstances surrounding a crewmember injury should be analyzed by a maritime attorney to determine whether they give rise to a breach of the warranty of seaworthiness.
Third, a Jones Act negligence claim. An injured crewmember may seek remedies against his employer by way of the Jones Act. In order to prevail in a Jones Act claim, the crewmember must establish, among other things, that there was a fault. That is, the crewmember must prove that an unreasonable condition, act or failure to act caused his injury. Where your injury arises from an assault by another crewmember, an incompetent captain, a highway accident while you are in the service of the vessel, a lack of adequate training, or faulty equipment, you may have a viable Jones Act claim entitling you to a monetary judgment.
If you work aboard a fishing vessel, charter vessel, barge, boat or ship, you may be able to assert a claim under the Jones Act. If you construct or service offshore wind turbines and are injured or you have an accident while servicing offshore wind turbines, you may be able to assert a Jones Act claim. If while working on a ferry you suffer an injury, you may be able to assert a Jones Act claim. In fact, if you are working on or around the water and are injured, you may be entitled to assert a Jones Act claim making it important that you promptly contact an admiralty attorney to discuss your legal options.
Fourth, a maritime negligence claim. An injured crewmember may be able to assert a maritime negligence claim. A maritime negligence action may be brought against the vessel, person or legal entity committing the negligence.
Fifth, maintenance and cure. "Maintenance" refers to the value of a crewmember's room and board (or a daily stipend as may be set out in a seaman's contract) and medical care ("Cure") which your status as a crewmember likely entitles you to receive. Maintenance and cure is a rule made by the courts and is not a child of legislation. In other words, maintenance and cure is an obligation imposed on employers as a result of a long line of admiralty law case history requiring that maintenance and cure be provided. A claim for maintenance and cure may be asserted against the crewmember's employer and/or the vessel itself in what is called an "in rem" action. Importantly, the issue of who is at fault almost never comes into play in connection with maintenance and cure. Generally speaking, if you satisfy the status as a crewmember, you are likely entitled to receive maintenance and cure and it typically doesn't matter if you were the sole or a contributing cause of your injury. In most instances, a crewmember is entitled to receive maintenance and cure until such time as she reaches maximum medical improvement. (You may hear insurers and employers referring to "maximum medical improvement" as "MMI.") While every claim will vary, a court may find that MMI is reached where further medical treatment will not improve the crewmember's physical condition, but will simply relieve pain and suffering. If you are refused maintenance and cure, your admiralty attorney may be able to pursue punitive damages as part of a claim seeking maintenance and cure.
In summary, depending upon your claimant status and the underlying facts and circumstances, one or more of these claims may be alleged. For instance, we have not discussed claims for breach of contract, death claims, and claims for wrongful discharge. Your admiralty attorney or maritime accident lawyer can provide you with additional information about these and other claims and can help you understand what needs to be proven to obtain a remedy and the sorts of defenses that may be raised by the defendants. Importantly, your admiralty lawyer can also review with you the time in which you must pursue the claim in order to avoid the claim being extinguished by the passage of the statute of limitations period. In addition, your admiralty legal counsel can review with you the kinds of damages to which you are entitled.
It all starts with you contacting a maritime accident attorney. Always make sure to speak to a maritime lawyer about the specific facts of your case so that you have a good understanding as to what claims you may possess. Delaying never helps a claim, act today to contact your maritime law firm.
--- Fulweiler LLC