This is a question that has provoked much controversy. There is no law that defines a seaman. The courts have defined a seaman as one who is more or less permanently assigned to a vessel (or group of vessels under common ownership) who is primarily aboard to aid in the mission or function of the vessel. Obviously crewman on fishing boats, passenger ships, tugboats, and merchant vessels are seaman. But there are also seamen who work on special purpose vessel like barges, dredges, punts, floating cranes, and moveable oil drilling rigs (semi-submersible and jack-up). Riggers, piledrivers, dredge hands, and welders on floating cranes and barges (even those owned by shipyards) can be seamen. Most shipyards own tugs and barges, and shipyard employees who work on them may qualify as seaman.
Unlike shore workers who receive workers’ compensation benefits regardless of fault, a seaman must sue his employer for damages. He has two ways to go — negligence and unseaworthiness. The Jones Act gives a seaman the right to sue his employer for negligence (failure to use ordinary care.) To succeed in a negligence action a seaman must demonstrate some degree of fault on the part his employer, no matter how small, that caused his injury.
This is a form of strict liability (liability without fault.) Virtually any equipment failure, unsafe condition, lack of safety devices, lack of safety equipment, or lack of manpower for a particular task will render the vessel unseaworthy – even if the vessel owner has done nothing wrong, or has exercised ordinary care. The unseaworthiness doctrine is a lethal weapon for an injured seaman.
While a seaman is out of work due to an injury, he is entitled to maintenance payments to cover the daily costs of his food and lodging until he reaches his point of maximum medical improvement. The employer must pay for all medical treatment, which is known as cure. Maintenance and cure is paid regardless of fault. A failure to pay maintenance and cure will subject the employer to liability for attorney fees.
Seamen generally have three years from the date of injury to file a lawsuit for negligence or unseaworthiness. Remember, though, the longer you wait the colder the trail becomes. Witnesses forget what happened, unsafe conditions are corrected, and vessels get sold. The statute of limitations is shorter for suing the United States Navy or the United States Government.
Preston Easley is an experienced personal injury and maritime injury lawyer with considerable expertise in handling federal and state cases. He will aggressively seek the maximum amount of compensation you are entitled to receive. For a free initial consultation, call or email our law firm today.