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Maritime law – Navigating Maritime Personal Injury and Death Cases

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Maritime law (also referred to as admiralty law) is a specific body of law that addresses and governs maritime legal issues. The statutes and provisions of maritime law are applicable when seeking recovery for any personal injury or death that occurs on vessels or is caused by vessels at sea. Each country has its own set of rules and regulations as well. However, navigating how these cases will be addressed relies heavily on whether the plaintiff is a passenger or a worker.

Maritime law defines what is required for causes of action and recoverable damages according to the status and situs of the plaintiff. This will be predicated on whether the plaintiff is an employee or a passenger (aka “status”) and/or the location where the injury or death occurs (aka “situs”). If a case involves a longshore or harbor worker, it will fall under both the status and situs conventions.

A classic instance is the following: If a plaintiff falls overboard while walking up a gangway to board a vessel, who can be sued and for what damages will depend on whether the plaintiff is a passenger, a seafarer, or a longshore worker.

An important timeline to bear in mind is that the statute of limitations on maritime torts is generally three years from the time of injury or death, which is to be determined with the assistance of an attorney.  (See 46 U.S.C. § 30106). Let’s have a look at maritime laws and review examples of causes of action as well as damages to see how maritime law would be applied in each instance.

  1. PASSENGERS

If a liability involves death or injuries to passengers, under maritime law there are three basic causes of action for personal injury, including a general maritime cause of action for negligence against alleged tortfeasors, and two statutory causes of action against a vessel’s owner, master (aka captain), officers, as well as the vessel itself under certain circumstances. These three basic causes are covered in more detail below.

  1. Liability to Passengers for Negligence

Courts have long held that vessel owners do not owe a duty of care to anyone who takes, boards, or uses a vessel without its owner’s authorization. This was held in the case Garrett v. U.S. Lines, Inc., 574 F.2d 997, 999 (9th Cir. 1978) where an owner was found to be not liable for injuries to a passenger who boarded against instructions. Vessel owners have a duty of reasonable care to passengers, but no duty of care to trespassers.

  1. Statutory Liability to Passengers

Passengers can sue under two statutory causes of action for personal injury. It is possible for a passenger to sue a vessel owner, the vessel’s master, and the vessel itself for personal injuries, if they are found to be caused by a failure to comply with inspection standards, manning requirements, or a known defect in the vessel. It is also possible for a passenger to sue a vessel’s “master, mate, engineer or pilot” for personal injuries that are caused by negligence, willful misconduct, or failure to obey navigation laws under 46 U.S.C. § 30103.

  1. Liability for Wrongful Death

Depending on where the facts causing death occur, liability for wrongful death can be applicable and offer different remedies. As an example, if deaths are caused within three nautical miles of the U.S. “territorial waters,” state law will supplement federal maritime law to provide a remedy.

On the high seas (beyond what is classified as territorial waters) a spouse, child, parent or dependent relative of the decedent can sue alleged tortfeasors and vessels for pecuniary loss under the Death on the High Seas Act (“DOHSA”), 46 U.S.C. §§ 30301 et seq. (formerly codified at 46 U.S.C. app. §§ 761 et seq.). All non-pecuniary damages such as loss of society, loss of consortium and punitive damages are not recoverable.

  1. SEAFARERS

By definition, seafarers are individuals who are employed to work on a vessel. Seafarers can bring the same general maritime law and statutory claims against third parties as Passengers. However, they have additional remedies as well, and are treated as a special class; they are the “wards of admiralty” due to their particular vulnerability to the perils of the sea, foreign travel, and the vagaries of masters. See Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 354 (1995); Isbrandtsen Co. v. Johnson, 343 U.S. 779, 782 (1952).

  1. The Jones Act

To invoke the Jones Act and receive damages, seafarers or seamen must prove that their injuries are due to negligence by another party and that they occurred at work. The burden of proof is on the seaman, although it is much lower in these cases than in typical personal injury cases. Such reasons for employer liability can include:

  • Equipment not being kept up to date
  • Equipment not being maintained properly
  • Fatigued, overworked employees
  • Improperly trained employees
  • Lack of warning signs

Damages under the Jones Act can include lost wages or earning capacity, medical expenses, pain, disfigurement and more. The statue of limitations is for three years from the time of injury, unless the lawsuit is against a vessel owned and contracted by the U.S., where the statue of limitations will be shorter and will depend upon the individual case.

  1. Unseaworthiness

Unseaworthiness refers to the general maritime law cause of action against a vessel owner and also against the vessel itself. It is predicated upon the duty of vessel owners to provide completely seaworthy vessels that are fit for their intended use, and any breach of the warranty of seaworthiness will cause a vessel owner to be strictly liable for injury and death. This also extends to lack of training for crewmembers to perform a task and thereby causing dangerous conditions. “An unseaworthy condition can be anything from a broken deck plate to malfunctioning equipment; the condition can be visible, or it can be difficult to detect. For these reasons, or others, a vessel might be considered unsafe for service,” confirms Attorney Scott Sandler, experienced South Florida-based admiralty lawyer.

  1. Maintenance, Cure, and Unearned Wages

Recovery for seafarers is also designed to protect ill or injured seafarers from being left behind in foreign ports without the wherewithal to care for themselves during their recovery. Employers become liable for a seaman’s entitlement for maintenance, cure, and unearned wages when an illness or injury either occurs, manifests, or becomes exacerbated.

Maintenance

Maintenance refers to the compensation for food and lodging equivalent to what the seafarer receives onboard his or her vessel while the seafarer recovers on shore from his injuries or illness. In many cases, much litigation and controversy surrounds the amount of maintenance due because of the difficulty to determine the actual cost of care and/or lodging.

Cure

Cure refers to reimbursement for medical expenses associated with the injury during the time of recovery, including doctor visits, medications, exams, rehabilitation, and the costs of travel to medical appointments. An employer can meet its obligation to pay cure by funding a medical plan for the seafarer to cover these costs.

Unearned Wages

Unearned wages refer to the provision that a seafarer is entitled to recover any wages he or she would have earned, had the voyage had been completed by the seafarer during the period in which the illness or injury occurred. If a seafarer is contracted to serve for a period, as opposed to just a voyage, the seafarer has the right to recover unearned wages to the end of the contract period.

  1. LONGSHORE AND HARBOR WORKERS

The Longshore and Harbor Workers category includes all individuals who are not seafarers but are employed to work around vessels to repair or load them. This provision would include docks and piers as well as navigable waters, depending on where the work needs to be performed. The workers can bring the same general maritime law and statutory claims against third parties as Passengers and seafarers. The exclusive statutory remedy they can employ is the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (the “LHWCA”), 33 U.S.C. §§ 901 et seq. This remedy allows them to receive medical services and disability and death benefits, and sometimes even attorney fees.

Further, it is critical to note that a worker must give his or her employer notice of a claim under the LHWCA within thirty (30) days of sustaining an injury. Id. § 912(a). Claims must be filed within one year of injury or death.

If you have been harmed in a maritime environment, consider contacting an attorney who is experienced in maritime personal injury law. Attorney Scott Sandler has over three decades of personal injury trial experience. For more information, click here: https://www.scottsandlerlawoffice.com/