Seamen’s Accidents, Injury and Death Law“Pete, I knew you as a world champ sailor who always outworked the rest of the competition, so I thought I’d give you a try for my tug injury. You practice law the same way you sailed. Thanks, buddy.
Dick” (last name withheld because of confidential settlement)
As a maritime worker, you face a high risk of an on-the-job injury. You have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and we are here to help.
Seamen, merchant mariners, fisherman … all of you have jobs different from those on land and all of you face increased risks because of this. What may be relatively safe on land becomes dangerous at sea. Doing a job with waves crashing, many times on a moving platform, is very different from doing a job on stable land. You know that, and so do we.
Maritime injuries are woefully common, and when they occur, you might be days away from medical care. Injuries at sea have their own peculiar risks. Non-life threatening injuries can become life threatening, and what would be a minor injury on land can become an emergency, when you are at sea. Again, being a seaman is different. The vessel captain, and through him, the vessel owner, controls nearly everything on board. Maritime law recognizes this and seeks to compensate in favor of the seaman and fisherman. The law has several special legal remedies available to help ensure injured seamen/fishermen receive full and just compensation and care if injured at sea or on a vessel. If you are an injured maritime worker, an injured seaman, an injured fisherman, an injured merchant marine, or an injured yacht crewmember, we urge you to contact us, so we can help you determine your rights and seek full compensation under the maritime laws for your injury.
Determining Your Status
When you meet with us, we will ask you questions that will help us identify the laws that apply to your specific situation. We will ask you:
- Your relationship to the vessel – were you injured on the job, while a passenger on a vessel, or as a business invitee.
- Where your injury occurred – on board ship, at the dock, etc.
- The ship’s status – government vessel or privately owned.
- Where was the ship when you were injured – in the Atlantic Ocean, Biscayne Bay, Gulf of Mexico, or in the Caribbean?
- The home port of the vessel, where you were hired, where the vessel departed from and where you were scheduled to arrive.
- The name and type of your employer – public, private, government.
- The name of the vessel.
- The type of vessel.
- Your position aboard the vessel and the type of work you were performing.
- The particulars of how your accident happened, what equipment or crew members may have been involved, any other vessels that were involved, etc.
Determining the Laws that Apply to Your Situation
Your answers to the above questions will help us to determine which law will help you obtain full compensation for your injuries.
We have successfully recovered damages for clients under the following maritime laws:
- The Jones Act
- The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Act
- The Limitation of Liability Act
- The Federal Tort Claims Act
- The general maritime law
- The Public Vessels Act
- The Suits in Admiralty Act
- Death on the High Seas Act
- The Clarification Act (MARAD claims)
- Florida State Law
- Laws of other jurisdictions, such as other U.S. States, Bahamas, Jamaica, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, just to name a few that we have dealt with
The Jones Act
As a seaman, you are no doubt at least somewhat familiar with the Jones Act. The Jones Act was enacted in 1915 and amended in 1920 to protect seamen by allowing a seaman to bring a personal injury claim against his employer if the employer (or any agent, officer or crew member) was at fault in causing or contributing to an accident and injury. The Jones Act covers all crew members working on a ship, rig, barge, crew boat, recreational boat, floating crane, tanker, tug boat, commercial fishing vessel, dredge, ferry, cruise ship, or just about any other type of watercraft used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water (even just for one voyage).
As any seaman knows, a ship can be a very dangerous place to work. The Jones Act is set up so that a seaman’s employer may be liable for contributing to a seaman’s injury. As a seaman or fisherman, you can recover damages for your at sea or on vessel injury even when if you were performing dangerous work. The law recognizes that working at sea is always risky and our laws (in particular, the Jones Act) and our courts make things easier and fairer for injured vessel crew. Put simply, as a crewmember injured at sea or on a vessel, you will have an easier time winning your injury case under the Jones Act than you would if you were suing for the same accident on land.
In addition to your being entitled to recover damages for your injuries caused by owner, co-worker (fellow crew member) or vessel negligence, as an injured seaman or fisherman, you are also entitled to pursue claims against the vessel owner if the vessel was not seaworthy. Your employer may also be liable for failing to provide you, as a seaman or fisherman, with adequate medical care. In other words, you may also have a legal claim if the vessel on which you were working was not properly set up to treat or handle on board injuries.
The Jones Act usually allows seamen and fishermen to recover damages for both past and future economic and non-economic losses. This means that if you are an injured seaman or fisherman, you can recover damages for such things as your lost wages or income, your past and future pain and suffering, and your past and future medical expenses. Again, the maritime legal system is set up to help seamen and fishermen just like you and our maritime injury lawyers are dedicated to do the same.
Peter Commette and his maritime experienced staff have successfully represented clients whose injuries were caused by the negligence of their employer including:
- Improper operation of the vessel
- Failure to provide and maintain reasonably safe equipment
- Failing to exercise due care in selecting a competent crew
- Failing to prevent physical assaults by crew members
- Negligent hiring of crew members
- Failure to provide proper training
- Dangerous or unsafe work and the dangerous manner of work
- Negligent orders or instructions by supervisors
- Requiring excessive duty
- Operating in heavy weather
- Failure to correct known dangerous conditions and obstructions
- Failure to make inspections of the vessel, equipment and work
- Failure to provide adequate medical treatment
- Failure to give warnings of a known hazard
- Allowing an inexperienced crew member to operate machinery
- Failure to consider a client’s physical limitations in assigning duties
- Failure to require the use of safety gear
- Failure to comply with industry customs and practices
Unseaworthy Vessels – They may look good, but …
The maritime law requires vessel owners provide their crew with a seaworthy vessel. You, as a crewmember on a vessel are entitled to this. Seaworthiness under our maritime laws means more than that the vessel not be about to sink. The maritime courts typically define a seaworthy vessel as one reasonably fit for its intended use. This means the vessel you are on must be safe for going out to sea. As a seaman or fisherman, you are entitled to crew a ship equipped with appropriate equipment and safety gear. Your vessel must also have competent crew for the particular voyage and enough crew for the particular vessel and voyage, working appropriate hours and not being over-worked. Above all else, the ship you board and crew must be a safe place for you as a seaman or fisherman to work.
Just because a vessel leaves port in a seaworthy condition does not mean it cannot become unseaworthy once at sea. And if you become injured at sea on such a vessel that has become unseaworthy from dangers that arose or were created while on its voyage at sea, you may pursue the legal claim of unseaworthiness in just the same way as if the vessel had left port unseaworthy.
Each vessel must have properly working and appropriate equipment for each employee. The vessel must also be a safe place to work and live for weeks or months at a time. It must follow Coast Guard rules and regulations as well as the ISM Code (International Safety Management) and OSHA regulations. If the vessel does not meet these requirements, it can be considered unseaworthy.
It often makes sense to purse a claim that a vessel is not seaworthy as well as a claim under the Jones Act. Again, the maritime laws and the maritime courts are set up to help injured crew and our maritime lawyers are dedicated to doing the same. We will analyze your maritime injury case and pursue the proper claims on your behalf.
Peter Commette and the staff at Peter M. Commette, P.A. have successfully represented clients whose injuries were caused by unseaworthy conditions including:
- The sinking of a vessel
- A weak block and tackle chain
- Physical assault by another crew member
- Leaking hydraulic and fuel lines and pipes
- Mistakes made by improperly trained crew members
- Undermanned crews (not assigning enough men to do the work)
- Incompetent crew
- Defective equipment
- Failure to issue safety equipment
- Malfunction of winches, dredges, cables, hydraulics. auto pilot and other equipment
- Unreasonably slippery and cluttered decks and obstructions on deck
- Unsafe ladders
- Improperly equipped vessels
- Improper packing of stores
- Failure of hatch covers
- Cables that snapped
- Failure of vessel equipment
- Excessive overtime work causing stress and fatigue
- Unsafe methods of work
- Carrying heavy loads
We have the resources and knowledge to investigate and pursue unseaworthiness claims. We work with experienced and qualified maritime safety professionals to identify unseaworthy equipment and conditions, building a strong and detailed claim for our injured clients. If you have been hurt because of an unseaworthy condition on a vessel, we can help.
Maintenance & Cure
When a seaman or commercial fisherman gets hurt, he has the right to obtain maintenance and cure from his employer. Maintenance and cure, unlike a claim for damages under the Jones Act, is awarded regardless of fault for the injury. In that regard, it is similar to workers’ compensation. Maintenance is the payment of living expenses. Cure is providing and paying for medical treatment, medical testing, prescriptions, etc.
Maintenance is a daily allowance, usually ranging from $25 to $45 per day, but, in some circumstances, could be considerably higher, because the living expenses that make up maintenance can include rent or mortgage payments, utility bills, groceries and incidentals. Maintenance is provided to an injured crew member to pay for the food and shelter the injured crew member would have received aboard the vessel had the injury not have occurred. In other words, as an injured seaman or fisherman, you are eligible to these payments from the time of your injury to make up for the food and shelter you are no longer receiving from your vessel because of your injury.
The law of cure requires the employer to provide an injured seaman or fisherman with medical care and treatment, including hospitalization, and rehabilitation. Cure must be provided the injured seaman/fisherman until such time as he or she has reached maximum medical improvement. In other words, if you are injured at sea or on a vessel, your employer needs to pay for your medical treatment arising from your injury and your employer must do that until your condition has stabilized and is not going to change, either for better or for worse. Cure is just another way the maritime laws and the maritime courts make things better for the injured seaman in recognition of the dangers of the seagoing life.
Duration of Maintenance & Cure
Maintenance and Cure continue until the seaman reaches maximum medical improvement. Often, employers are eager to see an injured worker reach maximum medical improvement, eliminating the requirement to pay additional maintenance and cure. It is not uncommon for employers to offer the help of nurse consultants and schedule appointments with company doctors.
With our admiralty knowledge and experience, we educate our clients about their rights under the maintenance and cure provisions of the general maritime law. We help injured seamen obtain the best possible medical care from the physician of their choice, making sure that the proper tests are conducted and the right diagnosis is made while the employer pays these medical expenses, as it is obligated to do.
The Interaction of Jones Act, Unseaworthiness and Maintenance & Cure
It is important for you to know that as an injured seaman/fisherman, you are entitled to maintenance and cure if you are injured on a vessel or at sea, no matter how strong or weak your Jones Act claim or unseaworthiness claim may be. The damages to which you may be entitled under the Jones Act are in addition to your entitlement to maintenance and cure payments. The damages to which you may be entitled under an unseaworthiness claim are also in addition to your entitlement to maintenance and cure payments. Your entitlement to maintenance and cure operates separate and apart from your claims for damages on your Jones Act or your unseaworthiness claim.
Wrongful Death in a Maritime Setting and Death on the High Seas Act (“DOHSA”) and Seamen
Remedies for wrongful death on the high seas are governed by the Death on The High Seas Act (referred to as DOHSA), a Federal statute enacted in 1920. DOHSA is found at 46 U.S.C. Sec. 30301 through 30308. This statute provides for wrongful death remedies on the “high seas.” These remedies are limited to pecuniary damages, which are the economic losses to the estate.
The common law provides wrongful death remedies on navigable waterways not the high seas. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the common law damages included not only loss of support, but also loss of the companionship and society of the decedent, and a survival action for the pain and suffering of the decedent. However, the Supreme Court has confined the common law wrongful death remedy to cases in which the measure of damages is not governed by a federal statute.
DOHSA, when it controls, is not your friend. It is not in line with the wrongful death remedies of most states or with the common law referred to above. Most state wrongful death remedies provide for recovery not only of the economic contributions of the decedent but also for the pre death pain and suffering of the decedent; for the loss of companionship, guidance, and consortium of the “survivors”; and for the grief of the “survivors.” In limiting the estate to economic damages, DOHSA limits the rights of those bereaved and left behind. In the right circumstances, DOHSA can be avoided in a maritime wrongful death case, but this takes the right set of circumstances and the right, knowledgeable admiralty/maritime attorney to know how to navigate this maze of overlapping federal statutes and law
The Limitation of Liability Act’s Affect on Seamen
“The captain went down with the ship, but the chairman escaped with his life – and fortune – intact.” — Old saying about the Titanic; sound familiar?
The Limitation of Liability Act is a potential trap for injured seamen. One of the unique aspects of maritime law is the ability of a shipowner to file a lawsuit to limit the vessel owner’s liability to the value of the ship plus pending freight at the end of the voyage. If a vessel sinks or has little value after a catastrophic accident, this means the vessel owner’s responsibility can be limited to little or nothing. The Limitation of Liability Act can be traced back to an English statute enacted in 1734, well before corporate ownership and insurance were available to protect shipowners and at a time when Modern ships were out of the control of their shoreside owners; a shipowner who properly equipped and crewed a ship shouldn’t be liable for something that happens when the ship is out of his control. It was intended to encourage investment in the shipping industry. The reasons for having this law no longer exist, but the Limitation of Liability Act remains.
An example of the use of the Limitation of Liability Act is the sinking of the Titanic on April 12, 1912. Even though the Titanic had never been to the United States, upon her sinking, the owners rushed into the federal courts in New York to file a limitation of liability proceeding. The Limitation of Liability Act provides that if an accident happens due to a circumstance which is beyond the privity (direct contract relationship) and knowledge” of the ship’s owner, the owner can limit his liability to the value of the ship after it sinks. With the Titanic, the families of the deceased passengers, and the families of the surviving passengers who lost their personal belongings, were limited to splitting $95,000, the value of the remaining lifeboats and pending freight; the value of the Titanic after it sank was zero.
Click here to download a fascinating letter written on August 23, 1912, just four short months after the Titanic sank. The letter was written by the lawyers for insured cargo interests regarding the issues surrounding recovery of their losses from the cruise line. My father, a maritime lawyer who practiced for over 50 years in New York City, came into possession of it, when a friend sent it to him in the 1990’s for a good read. It is a very good read. The letter is a masterful piece of legal evaluation, anticipating most all of the legal arguments and blocking tactics, like Limitation of Liability, that would be employed by the cruise line. The appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in a decision authored by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, reversing the decisions of all the lower courts. He and the majority of the court viewed the matter of which country’s law for the court to apply as procedural in nature and concluded that judicial procedures should be determined by the law of the nation in which each court sits, in this case, the United States. Therefore, the Supreme Court ruled that, in virtually all cases involving foreign flag vessels or non-U.S. shipowners, Limitation of Liability proceedings may be commenced in the United States, and the proceedings will be governed by U.S. maritime law, regardless of the flag or ownership of the vessel on behalf of which the limitation petition was filed. Take time to read the letter; it is that very good read my father was promised, and it underscores the next tragedy facing those injured or who have lost loved ones in a ship disaster.
Open Water Seamen Accident and Injury
Seamen working aboard vessels that travel in international waters, including container ships, freighters, tankers, etc. are crewed by the traditional open water seamen. If you are injured aboard a vessel overseas, you need an experienced attorney, such as Peter Commette and his staff at Peter M. Commette, P.A. to address the jurisdictional issues and determine the appropriate place to file your claim.
If you are injured aboard a United States government vessel (USNS, USS, CAPE, etc.) special rules apply, including a two-year statute of limitations for filing Suits in Admiralty and Public Vessels Act lawsuits. If you are on a ship operating for the Maritime Administration, there is an even shorter deadline to submit a complicated and mandatory claim before filing suit. Peter Commette and his staff at the law firm of Peter M. Commette, P.A. are experienced in handling both private company and government ship claims.
We have been able to recover damages for many open water seamen, including payment of medical bills and expenses, lost wages, loss of earning capacity, pain and suffering, disability, and other losses when the employer was negligent and/or the vessel unseaworthy.
Avoiding the Limitation of Liability Act for Seamen
Unscrupulous owners can be stopped from circumventing justice, but it isn’t easy, and it’s near impossible for a non-maritime attorney. Limitation of Liability actions can be difficult and procedurally challenging, with short time periods to file a claim. Cases brought in state court can be removed to federal court, if the owner timely files a Limitation of Liability Action in response to the claim. If the ship owner has petitioned the court to limit its liability, you must act quickly. The Limitation of Liability Act normally imposes a very quick deadline to file both a response to the vessel owner’s lawsuit and a claim for your damages.
Peter Commette and his staff at Peter M. Commette, P.A. have successfully prevented Limitation of Liability lawsuits from limiting recovery by anticipation and tactics, and by filing the appropriate pleadings and stipulations to allow our clients to proceed with their lawsuits to secure full and just compensation.
Peter Commette and his staff at Peter M. Commette, P.A. are well equipped and have the resources and knowledge to represent our seamen clients against the biggest companies. The defendants in some of the cases Peter M. Commette, P.A. has handled include:
- Carnival Cruise Lines
- Norwegian Cruise Line
- Norwegian Caribbean Cruise Lines (NCL)
- Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCL)
- Celebrity Cruises
- Disney Cruise Line
- Discovery Cruise Line
- Princess Cruise Lines
- Water taxi lines
- Crowley Marine
- Lykes Bros. Steamship Co.
- Maersk Line, Limited
- Marine Transport Lines
- Moran Towing & Transportation Company
- Seaward Marine Services, Inc.
- And many more
Why Do You Need a Maritime Injury Lawyer?
and Why Peter Commette and his staff at Peter M. Commette, P.A.?
An admiralty or maritime injury attorney is a personal injury lawyer who focuses on admiralty law and maritime law. An admiralty and maritime injury lawyer understands the unique requirements of maritime and admiralty law governing legal claims for injuries on a vessel or at sea.
Maritime injury lawyers must be familiar with specific maritime laws, such as the Jones Act, the Death on High Seas Act, and the laws relating to unseaworthiness. Maritime injury attorneys must also know international law because your injury may have happened on a foreign flagged ship.
Even if you think the circumstances of your boating injury are quite simple, your case might very well be quite complex. Your maritime injury lawyer should have experience handling the maritime law and international law issues your case might very well present. If you are injured on a vessel, you should consult with an experienced maritime injury lawyer. Our firm has been handling maritime injury cases since its inception. We have handled numerous maritime/admiralty matters all over the world. This is not a level playing field. Our business is to protect the injured and fight for your rights.
If you have been injured in a marine accident in Florida, or any of the Caribbean Islands (Grand Bahama, Nassau, Paradise Island, Jamaica, St. Lucia, etc.), please contact Peter Commette and his staff at Peter M. Commette, P.A. today to schedule your confidential initial free consultation.