We used to send the newbies down the pier looking for bulkhead remover. It was a funny joke that never escalated beyond a collective laugh when the newbie returned swearing he'd looked all over and couldn't find any. Still, some shipboard situations aren't jokes and can put crew in those tough waters between a career and what's right.
If you find yourself in such a situation, it's worth remembering a statute titled: "Protection of seaman against discrimination." (46 U.S.C. § 2114) This federal law aims to protect seaman from discrimination or discharge because, in short, they do the right thing. That is, if you accurately report your hours or refuse to perform your duties because of a reasonable belief of injury or in good faith you report or are about to report to the Coast Guard a maritime safety violation, this federal law could provide you with some protection. Similarly, if you give information to a public official as to the facts relating to any marine casualty resulting in injury or death or damage to property occurring in connection with vessel transportation, this statute would prohibit you from being discharged or discriminated against for doing so.
I think this law is a good idea and it's been around for a while, but I haven't seen it crop up much in the case law. This law's low profile could mean one of two things: either there just hasn't been much need for its protections, or, the maritime community forgets that this friendly law is riding shotgun. Whatever the situation, go speak to a maritime lawyer to understand your rights because the seas can get easily confused. For instance, one court found that merely making inquiries with the Coast Guard, but not reporting a violation or filing a complaint did not trigger the law. There's also a troubling instance where an employer tried to recover fees and costs against the employee in an action involving this law. The employer wasn't successful, but in my opinion, that kind of counterclaim is un-American. We have a legal system that promotes access to the courthouse by leaving each party, in most instances, paying for their own fees and costs.
If you're in a situation where this law might help you, don't delay in taking action. Like a lot of things in the law, the passing of time doesn't usually improve a claimant's situation and delay can risk the claim being extinguished. Even if you're straddling the gunnel wondering what to do, hunt up a maritime lawyer and run the scenario past them. Any maritime lawyer worth their salt will usually have time to give you some initial thoughts as to your situation.
If you're a working man earning your keep on the sea, it's a good idea to remember that this law along with a good maritime lawyer may help you navigate clear of a sticky situation.
John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or visit his website at www.saltwaterlaw.com.
Underway and making way.