What you need to know about the Jones Act work injury claims in Georgia
Seamen injured during the course of their regular employment are allowed to sue their employer for damages under the federal law known as the “Jones Act.” Unlike workers’ compensation (which is a no-fault system), an injured seaman must establish that the crew and/or owner of the vessel acted in a negligent manner and caused their injury.
Injured seamen are not permitted to file traditional workers’ compensation claims against their employers, and they are not entitled to receive this type of payment under federal or state law. The remedy available in such scenarios stems from the Jones Act.
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Who is covered by the Jones Act?
Dating back to the 1920s, the legislation was passed as a means to provide remedies for seamen who sustain harm during the course of their employment on a variety of vessels including ships, movable rigs, tankers, fishing boats, research vessels, and more.
Seamen are workers who serve on ships or boats. Given the fact that these workers tend to be at sea for lengthy periods, their schedules are often quite irregular. It should be noted, however, that if a seaman’s job is only done partially aboard a vessel, they may not be entitled to seek compensation from the Jones Act. Those working part-time need to be working on a vessel for at least 30 percent of the time to fall under the definition of a seaman for purposes of the Jones Act.
What constitutes negligence under the Jones Act?
Employers can be found liable for negligent acts or omissions on the part of their agents, officers or employees. They must provide seamen a reasonable environment in which to work and must exercise ordinary care to maintain their vessel in a safe condition.
Liability can attach for allowing conditions such as:
- Broken or malfunctioning equipment
- Oil accumulations on deck
- Improper training
- Lack of necessary equipment
- Unsafe work practices
How to prove fault in Jones Act cases
Seamen who seek financial compensation under the Jones Act must meet a higher standard than typical injured workers have to under no-fault workers’ compensation. However, this standard is a lesser burden of proof than in typical negligence-based cases.
The injured Jones Act worker must demonstrate that the negligence at issue was a proximate cause of the harm sustained and that it had some role—even a small one—in provoking the injury of which they allege. Under this definition, it is often possible for seamen to prevail in cases predicated on Jones Act protections.
What compensation is available to injured crew members?
Damages available in Jones Act cases are essentially the same as in a typical personal injury action in that they include payment for medical bills, emotional distress, rehabilitation expenses, physical pain and suffering and reduced earning capacity. It may sometimes also be possible for an injured seaman to receive interest on the damages ultimately awarded.
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Jones Act vs. workers’ compensation
The remedies available in a Jones Act claim are considerably more substantial than those offered in a traditional workers’ compensation scenario, as the latter structure does not provide payment beyond that required to cover medical expenses and wage replacement. As such, the option of filing a Jones Act lawsuit should be contemplated by any injured workers who are victimized by employer negligence aboard a ship.
On the flip side, Jones Act claimants have the burden of proving that their employer acted negligently in order to recover compensation. This differs from the no-fault system of workers’ compensation, where injured workers are guaranteed certain benefits regardless of who was responsible for the work-related accident.
Time limitations on
Jones Act claims
It is important for potential claimants under the Jones Act to understand that they must initiate legal action within 3 years of the incident in question in order to preserve their right to seek compensation. This also differs from workers’ compensation in Georgia, where injured workers only have 1 year to file a claim.
How to file a Jones Act
work injury claim
In terms of how and where a Jones Act claim should be filed, injured crew members may file their claim either in federal or state court. They may also choose to file in either the state where they reside or the state in which the injury was sustained.
For claimants who hail from Georgia, it could be wise to file within the state itself given the high degree of familiarity its courts have with the Jones Act and maritime law cases, given the close proximity to the coast and seafaring professions.
Notable Jones Act cases
Sea captain’s widow settles COVID-19 negligence case
Kathy Norwood, the widow of sea Captain Michael Norwood, cited the 1920 Jones Act in the lawsuit she filed in the U.S. District Court, New Orleans, Louisiana. Her husband, Captain Norwood, was alleged to have contracted COVID-19 while working on an offshore vessel owned by Rodi Marine, LLC. He was hospitalized in Mobile, Alabama, where he passed away in April.
The lawsuit alleged that Captain Norwood was a victim of negligence due to having been assigned to work aboard the vessel alongside John Reed, another captain assigned there after working in New Orleans in March during a time when the city was one of the most active areas for COVID-19 cases.
This case drew a lot of attention as it would determine whether the Jones Act required owners of seagoing vessels to not only ensure that the vessels, themselves, were seaworthy but also that none of their maritime workers were infected with the life-threatening virus.
Before the case could play out, however, both Mrs. Norwood and Rodi Marine, LLC agreed to settle the matter out of court. This outcome means that there has been no determination as to the extent to which certain employers can potentially be considered legally negligent with regard to COVID-19. The details of the settlement were not publicly disclosed.
Jury awards injured Royal Caribbean officer more than $20 million
An officer who was injured in a 2008 accident on the cruise ship Voyager of the Seas has been awarded more than $20 million by a Florida jury.
Officer Lisa Spearman suffered serious permanent injury after coming to the aid of a staff nurse on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship. The nurse lost her footing as she walked past a watertight door during an emergency test trial. As Ms. Spearman attempted to help the nurse, the door crushed her right hand.
In the lawsuit filed by Ms. Spearman’s attorneys in Miami-Dade County, it was revealed that Royal Caribbean refused to continue her employment and would not seek disability benefits for her.
The lawsuit sought damages for negligence citing the Jones Act, along with the vessel’s unseaworthiness per the general maritime law, neglecting to provide her with prompt, adequate and proper medical attention per U.S. general maritime law, failure to provide wages as outlined in U.S.C. 10313, breach of contract, and a retaliatory discharge.
Following a 3-week trial, the jury found in Ms. Spearman’s favor and awarded her $20,300,000.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill
On April 20, 2010, the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in a fiery blaze off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. Almost 5 million barrels containing crude oil were released into the ocean. The oil rig was leased by BP Oil and owned by Transocean.
The cause of the explosion was natural gas that had infiltrated the ship’s core and made its way to the platform, resulting in a huge fire. The rig sank on April 22 after being completely engulfed in flames. At that point, a riser that served to remove underground mud ruptured, spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea.
Before the well could be capped nearly 3 months later in mid-July, approximately 60,000 barrels of crude oil were escaping into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Despite massive cleanup efforts being undertaken immediately, the oil produced a slick that could be seen covering an area of over 1000 square miles, killing marine and plant life along the coast.
To break up the oil spill, a dispersant known as Corexit was used. Unfortunately, Corexit is extremely harmful. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that Corexit can damage the nervous system, the skin, kidneys, and liver. It can result in chemically-induced pneumonitis, vomiting, depression, and mental impairment. Coastal communities saw an increase in such conditions following the spill. The effects of Corexit on Gulf Coast residents were akin to the effects of Agent Orange on American soldiers in the Vietnam War.
A total of 11 crew members were killed in the explosion, and 17 others suffered serious and catastrophic injuries. The surviving crew members and family members of the deceased were able to seek compensation under the Jones Act. To date, this disaster has cost BP Oil over $7.8 billion in settlement resources.
The Coast Guard’s ”paper captain” crackdown
The owner of a tuna longliner is being prosecuted by the U.S. Coast Guard after he was caught listing a foreign national as the vessel’s master, an act known as using a ”paper captain,” in violation of the Jones Act.
On October 19, John D Gibbs, the owner/managing operator of the tuna longliner, Southern Horizon, was found to be using a paper captain in order to employ cheaper labor. In 2022, the Columbia River Coast Guard Sector noticed an increase in Jones Act violations that began in 2020 in the Pacific Northwest. The Coast Guard enacted Operation Flat Stanley, aimed at identifying and prosecuting the owners of vessels using paper captains.
The Coast Guard chose to prosecute the owner/managing operator of the Southern Horizon rather than the paper captain because doing so allowed them to prosecute the owner as a repeat offender and thereby seek greater penalties.
Lieutenant Commander Colin Fogarty stated that their goal is not to seek penalties in paper captain cases per se—but rather for the penalties to make it far more costly for vessel owners to take a chance by employing foreign mariners. He stated that he wants them to abide by the laws and hire fully trained American vessel masters.
Operation Flat Stanley has proven successful thanks to the combined efforts of units located throughout the Pacific Northwest, the gathering and sharing of intelligence, and the work of officers specially trained to pursue the successful adjudication of paper captain violations.
To date, Operation Flat Stanley has been successful in collecting $60,000 in penalties from paper captain cases, with 13,000 more in cases awaiting an outcome.
Mr. Gibbs is a repeat offender of the paper captain law. If found guilty again in this case, he faces more than $12,000 in fines.
U.S. offshore industry group alleges Jones Act violations
Allegations have been levied against a foreign-based company, Geoquip Marine, by the Offshore Marine Services Association (OMSA), indicating that their vessel has been used in a manner that violates the Jones Act. The violations allegedly occurred while the geotechnical survey vessel was involved in a wind energy project off the coast of Virginia.
According to a report, the vessel, Geoequip Saentis, took part in survey work during much of 2020 and 2021 for Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, as well as the Vineyard Wind project, located off the coast of southern New England.
The allegations were made in a 34-page report from OMSA, sent to the top-ranking officials of the United States Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard. The report outlines the alleged violations of the operators of the Geoequip Saentis with regard to the Jones Act, also known as the 1920 Merchant Marine Act. The laws outlined in these acts state only vessels manned by U.S. crews and operating under the U.S. flag may carry out maritime commerce from one U.S. point to another.
According to OMSA President Aaron Smith, the report contains an admission by the company that they transported cargo in U.S. waters territory using a vessel constructed in China and manned by a foreign crew. This is an illegal act.
Other violations listed by OMSA in the report include the following:
- The vessel Geoequip Saentis continues to carry merchandise from U.S. point to U.S. point, including samples of subsoil to U.S. points from the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf for testing, which violates the Jones Act.
- The Geoquip Saentis appears to have made its Automatic Identification System (AIS) alert inaccessible by shutting it off or by other means, which is a violation of international safety regulations and U.S. law.
- The Geoquip Saentis was and is manned by a crew lacking the required documentation per the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA); the crew has paid substandard wages; U.S. law requires that a U.S. crew be hired to man U.S. vessels. Committing these violations allowed the Geoquip Saentis to operate for less than legally flagged U.S. vessels, allowing it to gain work illegally that was only available under the Jones Act to U.S. flagged vessels.
- The Geoquip Saentis has been and continues to be in violation of U.S. pollution prevention laws, gaining the vessel two refusals of entry into U.S. ports by the U.S. Coast Guard captains of each port. The vessel operator was also found to have acknowledged that it was the source of pollution in a U.S. Coast Guard investigation into a recent oil spill.
In response, Geoquip Marine issued a statement categorically denying the claims made in the OMSA report. The investigation is ongoing.
When to consult with a workers’ comp lawyer
Maritime law and the Jones Act are distinctive areas of practice with which not every attorney is fully familiar. As such, when serious harm occurs while working aboard a water-going vessel, injured seamen are well-advised to consult with professionals who possess a strong record of handling this specific type of case.
The legal team at Gerber & Holder stands ready to review the facts of each client’s case and provide the guidance necessary for injured crew members to make informed decisions about their legal options.