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When you need an admiralty lawyer
Let’s say you work on an oil rig far out at sea, miles upon miles from shore. Work has been going pretty well, and there have been very few accidents during your time there.
All good things come to an end, as they say, and one day a fellow employee touches a live wire, electrocuting himself. He survived, but he accrued thousands in medical bills and was unable to return to his previous position.
What can that worker do to recover damages? What law applies when the accident happens not within the boundaries of a state, but on a tiny ocean-surrounded platform? This is a common issue in the oil drilling industry near Texas, for instance.
What is maritime law?
Maritime law is also referred to as admiralty law, and it governs navigable waters and shipping. It is codified in the Constitution and in the Judiciary Act of 1789; this means it is under federal jurisdiction. (Interestingly, if a state court would also have had jurisdiction of the case under common law, then there is concurrent jurisdiction and either could try the case.)
While most associate maritime law with on-the-job injuries (most maritime lawyers advertise as “helping injured seamen obtain compensation” or something similar), these accidents do also occur in recreational settings.
It is not enough that the accident took place on “navigable waters”; it must also share a “nexus” with “traditional maritime activities” and have a potential to disrupt maritime commerce.
So, while commercial activities fall under this definition, the courts have also determined that something like a collision between recreational boats can also be considered as a maritime case (see Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, 457 U.S. 668).
Cornell Law School lists a number of examples under maritime jurisdiction, such as shipping, navigation, piers, wharfs, canals and piracy. This doesn’t exclude recreational activities, though, so the inquiry should be:
1. Did the injury occur on navigable waters?
2. Was the injury associated with “traditional maritime activities” AND did it have the potential to disrupt maritime commerce?
The court’s inquiry is why there aren’t more maritime cases involving recreational yachts and ferries.
There are a number of federal laws that protect those working offshore on ships or on rigs:
- The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) (33 U.S. Code Chapter 40): enforces removal of oil spillage and implements process for determining damages
- The Death on the High Seas Act: a form of wrongful death case for families of deceased sailors to recover damages if deceased were killed by negligence on international waters or vessel was unseaworthy
- The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act: covers the Outer Continental Shelf of the United States
- The Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation (U.S. Department of Labor): provides compensation and vocational rehabilitation to injured workers, or compensation to families of the deceased
- The Jones Act: see below
The Jones Act in particular is extremely important to the safety and welfare of sailors.
Overview and background of the Jones Act
This Act, which is actually a combination of three federal laws, covers the carrying of goods and people over navigable waters. (And what does “navigable waters” mean? The Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, along with waters within the United States.)
It also protects seamen who are injured in a workplace accident. Examples of this type of worker are drillers, dredgers, tanker men, oilfield workers and more. Before these laws were implemented, an injured sailor had no recourse for his injuries. The tide turned in their favor (no pun intended) when the Act mandated that employers pay for injured employees’ medical treatment and living expenses if they were injured during maritime work.
The intention of the Act was A) protecting merchant marines, B) growing foreign and domestic commerce and C) recognizing maritime workers’ assistance in the nation’s defense.
The Jones Act is also one of the few laws that favors workers over their employers. The reason for this is the hazardous nature of maritime jobs. When employees are exposed to things like drowning, electrocution, explosions, falls, fires and exposure to toxic chemicals, employers are a bit more giving.
What can an employee get under the Jones Act?
They are entitled to maintenance (money necessary to pay for room and board) and cure (the payment for medical care that will return him or her to maximum medical improvement). These are provided no matter who was at fault.
Unlike a workers’ compensation case, however, the Jones Act allows injured seamen to pursue claims against their employer in federal or state court. The employee would have to prove that the vessel was not seaworthy and the damages were a result of the employer’s negligence. This is generally established in court by showing a breach of warranty and that the equipment was not fit for its intended purpose.
If an employee is injured during the scope of his employment while working onboard a vessel that is within a navigable waterway, then the Jones Act will apply.
Of course, then lawyers start arguing about what qualifies as a waterway and what qualifies as a vessel. (For the curious, a vessel includes ships like barges, drill ships, crew boats, tugboats, dredges, supply boats and floaters. Since technology keeps changing what a vessel is, a 2005 court ruling found that it means watercraft used as a means of transportation over water.)
What isn’t maritime law?
Just because an incident occurred in the ocean does not necessarily mean it falls under maritime jurisdiction. For instance, if you went swimming in the Florida Keys and were injured while on a scuba diving tour, state law would most likely apply. If you’re an employee who fell off a tugboat in the Mississippi River, however, then maritime law would apply.
In the first example, you are a tourist on vacation, and you didn’t scuba dive very far from shore. In the second example, you are working on navigable waters, and you were injured in the capacity of your employment.
Do I have a maritime lawsuit?
If you think that your case falls under maritime jurisdiction, you should definitely speak with a maritime lawyer. The Jones Act and the maritime body of law is complicated and extensive, and this type of attorney is specialized. Consider checking the Enjuris lawyer directory if you need help.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.