Awards of Punitive Damages in Seamen’s and Crew Members’ Personal Injury Claims

Information for Crew Members

An injured maritime worker seeking compensation normally has two courses of action:

  • If he meets the legal definition of a seaman or crew member, he can sue his employer for negligence under the Jones Act.
  • The injured seaman can also file a claim alleging that the vessel was unseaworthy and that an unsafe work environment led to his injury.

Awards of Punitive Damages in Seamen’s and Crew Members’ Personal Injury ClaimsUnder the Jones Act and the unseaworthiness laws, the seaman or crew member can recover damages for pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages and loss of earning capacity. In addition to these damages, the seaman or crew member could seek punitive damages.

Unlike the two courses of action described above, awards of punitive damages are not meant to compensate the plaintiff, but rather to punish defendants and reform them. Ship owners are required to pay the medical and living expenses of injured seamen and crew members until they reach maximum medical improvement. This law is known as "maintenance and cure".

"Punitive damages" describes a special type of civil damages. Such damages are awarded to a seaman or crew member when a court seeks to punish the defendant for gross negligence or reckless behavior.

In a Jones Act claim or an unseaworthiness claim, the dollar amount of an award is based on the damages suffered by the seaman or crew member. These damages cover pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages and loss of earning capacity. However, punitive damages are not meant to compensate the seaman but to inflict financial pain on the defendant.

When a court wants to punish a defendant or send a clear message to the industry as a whole, it will award the plaintiff a large sum based on how much the defendant is worth and how badly the defendant has behaved during the case.

For example, if it comes to light that the defendant deliberately failed to pay for an injured seaman’s medical and living expenses or its failure to provide adequate and immediate medical care substantially worsened the seaman’s medical condition, the court may award substantial punitive damages to the plaintiff to punish the defendant.

When it comes to maintenance and cure claims, the recent United States Supreme Court ruling in the case of Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend clears the way for seamen and crew members to pursue punitive damages in their cases. Punitive damages may be awarded if the plaintiff proves that the defendant did not meet his obligations to provide and pay reasonable medical care and living expenses or terminated maintenance and cure payments prematurely or without justification.

The Jones Act and the unseaworthiness laws give injured seamen the right to sue their employers for negligence and dangerous conditions aboard the ships, but whether the plaintiff can seek punitive damages at the same time depends on the situation. It is more common to award punitive damages in maintenance and cure claims. It is important to emphasize that punitive damages are not meant to compensate the injured party but rather to inflict financial punishment on those defendants who demonstrate gross negligence or recklessly dodge their responsibilities.

Who is a Seaman or Crew Member under the Jones Act?

Maritime Articles

Who is a Seaman or Crew Member under the Jones Act?Unlike land workers, maritime workers cannot claim worker’s compensation benefits. Instead, an injured maritime worker or crew member must file a claim for damages under the Jones Act. The Jones Act gives a maritime worker, more specifically a "seaman" or crew member, the right to claim damages against his employer in the event of injury caused by the employer’s negligence or a ship owner’s failure to ensure the seaworthiness of a vessel.

Under the Jones Act, the plaintiff can claim loss of income, medical expenses, and money compensation due to an injury suffered aboard a vessel in the course of performing his duties or while in the service of the ship. However, the Jones Act only protects maritime workers that meet the legal definition of "seaman" or crew member.

The Jones Act does not define the status of a seaman or crew member. Rather, case law has sought to clarify the legal definition of a seaman or crew member. In two cases, Harbor Tug and Barge Company v. Papai (1997) and in Chandris v. Latsis (1995), The U.S. Supreme Court stated that to be classified as a seaman or crew member and be covered by the Jones Act, the plaintiff must meet two essential requirements:

In the event of an injury that you contact a maritime lawyer.

  1. His "duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission."
  2. He “must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature."

The first requirement is fairly self-explanatory.
Every vessel that takes to the water does so with a mission, whether recreational, scientific, or commercial. The mission might be to transport passengers from one port to another or it may be to transport cargo. Every seaman constantly aboard the vessel contributes to the fulfillment of the vessel’s mission. That is, everyone working aboard a vessel is contributing in some way to a vessel’s mission or they would not be aboard. The cook, the waiter, the cleaner, the navigator, the ship’s doctor, the engineer are all contributing in their own way to the fulfillment of the vessel’s mission.

It is with the second requirement that things start looking a little tricky, and this is why it is important that in the event of an injury that you contact a maritime lawyer. This is because while you might meet the first requirement, you may not necessarily meet the second requirement, and if you do not, you may not qualify to file a claim under the Jones Act.
The second requirement for defining a seaman or crew member has two parts: the plaintiff must work on a "vessel in navigation" and his contribution or work is "substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature".
To qualify as a seaman or crew member, a maritime worker must work most of his time on a vessel that is in navigation. And it is the "in navigation" bit that is important. For a vessel to meet this definition it must meet the following criteria:

  1. The vessel must operate on navigable waters, which are waters that the vessel can travel across to reach the United States or another state within the Union. Navigable waters could be an ocean, or a large river, or an inland lake.
  2. The vessel must be capable of moving under its own power.
  3. The vessel must not be permanently anchored to the sea floor.

This strict definition excludes oil rigs. It also excludes vessels sitting in ship breaking yards. While an oil rig appears to float, it can only move if it is towed. For most of the time, an oil rig is anchored to the sea floor and so does not meet the definition of a vessel in navigation.

When it comes to assessing the worker’s contribution to the operation of a particular vessel or a fleet of related vessels, a seaman or crew member is one who contributes at least 30 percent of his time aboard in the fulfillment of the vessel’s mission.
Consider this example: an administrative clerk who normally works in an office on land but occasionally catches rides on ships to and from ports suffers an injury while aboard. Is he entitled to file a Jones Act claim?

Well, it depends.
If he performs no work aboard the ship that contributes to the operation of the vessel, then no, he does not qualify as a seaman or crew member under the Jones Act. If this administrative clerk spends 40 percent of his time aboard a ship performing duties that contributed to the operation of the vessel and the balance of his work time in an office on land, then he could potentially qualify as a seaman or crew member because more than 30 percent of his work time is given over to duties aboard a vessel in navigation.

A court would look at a plaintiff’s career with the shipping company. If he spent more than 30 percent of his career aboard a particular vessel or fleet of vessels, he could qualify as a seaman and seek damages under the Jones Act.

Because the Jones Act does not explicitly define what a seaman or crew member is under the law, case law has been used to give the term "seaman" a legal definition. Because the legal definition is not exactly cut and dry and due to the variety of vessels in operation today, as well as the slew of maritime-related jobs that exist, it is important that a maritime worker seek legal counsel in the event of an injury to determine if he qualifies as a seaman or crew member under the Jones Act before filing a claim.

What Is the Jones Act?

Maritime Articles

In 1920 the efforts of Senator Wesley Jones led to the approval of the Merchant Marine Act, which is remembered and recognized even today as the Jones Act. This federal law has a strong protectionist theme to it, in accordance with the historical situation in which it was written. In this sense, in the first part of the Act it establishes that the vessels which fly a US flag must be owned by US companies and be registered in the country. At that time there were attempts to increase the levels of construction and maintenance of boats with US ownership and crews.

As has been shown, the Jones Act was aimed at protecting the United States maritime industry. However, its content goes beyond this first objective and gains great importance because of the way in which it protects in a specific way the rights of the seamen, putting into law some old traditions and practices which look to protect the crew member economically in the event of them being injured at sea. It is important to point out that before this law was introduced any seaman who was injured while working had a very limited possibility of receiving a fair amount of compensation, while they would often lose both their current job and future opportunities due to the injuries.

As a result of what we have just seen, the Jones Act is mainly focused now on the demands which it places on employers to compensate crew members for the costs which result from accidents which have happened onboard a boat.

Who is protected by the Jones Act?

It is vital to point out that – taking into account the current legislation – we will use the name seaman for any person who is employed to take part in any type of work or to carry out any type of role onboard a seagoing vessel; except for scientific staff, sailing school instructors and school students. The definition of seaman is wide and as such the Act protects all of the maritime workers who carry out their jobs as a crew member on a US vessel.

Benefits for the Injured Seaman

The Jones Act gives the employer an obligation to pay the transport costs for moving the worker from the boat to the place where they will receive medical treatment. In the same way, the employer has the obligation to pay the costs (hospital, doctors, medicines, other related costs) relating to the medical attention received by the injured crew member, regardless of who was to blame for the incident which led to the injury.

The Act also states that in the case of employer negligence resulting in an accident to a worker they must pay the lost salary payment. The injured worker could also claim against the employer for the payment of lost salary in the past and in the future. They must also pay the injured crew member a daily amount for living on land which is equal to the amount that would have been spent by them living on board. If the worker dies as a result of the accident there are also benefits laid down for the members of their family.

It is important that we emphasize the fact that in all of the cases where negligence or lack of responsibility on the part of the employer has been proven the compensation will be greater. Generally, it is necessary to demonstrate that the incident happened because the vessel was not seaworthy because it was in bad condition. However, the “seaworthy” element can also be related to the fact that the employer didn’t have a properly prepared crew.

The Jones Act is a hugely important part of maritime rights because it protects seamen who get injured while carrying out their jobs. However, a lack of knowledge sometimes means that there is some confusion over which law is to be applied in the cases of maritime rights and the workers are tempted to use the workers’ compensation laws which have been approved by various states and which result in a lower financial compensation. 

Sea Law, the Jones Act and the need to retain a Maritime Lawyer

Maritime Articles

The increasing development of international maritime trade, combined with a steady growth in tourism are driving an increased demand for maritime workers to staff both merchant ships and cruise vessels.

More than three-quarters of freight shipped worldwide is said to travel by sea. The global merchant fleet includes some 80,000 vessels of at least 100 gross tons. More than 1.2 million seafarers are currently manning these vessels worldwide.

It is common to hire mariners from different countries. Many seafarers work in ships not registered in their country of origin. Such mixed crews often do not speak the same languages.

Both on land and at sea problems often arise from work and life on these ships. Legal disputes that originate on board have unique characteristics that can differ significantly from problems that originate on land. Things get even more difficult when trying to find what specific maritime laws will protect workers or passengers in each situation.

Why is it so difficult to know which Maritime Law applies?

Many factors come into place when deciding what maritime laws are appropriate in each case.  Among other things, one factor to consider is the location where an incident happened.  Did it occur in territorial waters or the high seas?  The flag of the vessel in which the incident happened is also important. Even the location on board the ship is often established within given applicable contracts, and whether an incident occurred in a public passageway or in areas given over for the operation of the ship can be relevant. Further complications arise from the fact that passengers and crew are often from different countries, with differing languages, cultures and laws.

These difficulties are often used against passengers and crew who feel as though their rights are quickly disappearing. Although workers and passengers may feel helpless, it’s important that they understand that their rights can be asserted.

Let’s take a look at Maritime Law and  the Jones Act.

After exposing some of the problems of maritime law, it is important to be aware that it is possible to claim compensation for damages.

To cite one example, the Merchant Marine Act, known as the Jones Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1920 and protects both U.S. and foreign born sailors.  Mariners can claim injury compensation provided that their employer has not provided a safe workplace. An accident claim may have not even originated on the boat. The Jones Act protects employees from marine employer negligence, however minimal.

Not only sailors are protected by Maritime Law. Disputes arising out of the business relationship between passengers and cruise companies can also be argued within the framework of maritime laws. Several reports of sexual abuse on cruise ships and disappearance cases involving persons at sea have been covered, where often people were not aware of the existing Maritime Laws created to protect victims of just such cases.

In every case, it’s important to know that the unique characteristics of maritime law can be complex. The assistance of an experienced maritime lawyer cannot be over-emphasized. Only those receiving true professional and learned counsel are likely to successfully see their rights asserted and just compensation served.