The primary difference between maritime law litigation and land-based injury suits is how these claims are treated in court. Typically, an injury suit is handled in front of a judge without the influence of a jury. However, when a qualified seaman is hurt on the job, they have the right to argue their case in front of a jury. This greatly changes the dynamics of the claim process and should only be handled by a legal professional who has experience in the area. These attorneys must be familiar with the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act.
The Jones Act lays out the regulations that vessels must follow when engaged in maritime commerce in U.S. waters. A small part of the Jones Act is concerned with maritime law litigation and the procedures associated with it. Before a worker can take advantage of the Jones Act’s regulations, they must first be considered a qualified seaman. While there is often some dispute over the nature of a worker’s employment, any seaman that spends at least 30 percent of their time on a navigating vessel is eligible for protection under the Jones Act.
For qualified seamen, any injury due to negligence by the vessel owner is subject to protection under the Jones Act. This includes negligence in maintaining the ship or negligence in providing enough skilled crew to keep the vessel operating safely. On the high seas, workers are most often hurt while attempting repairs, or loading and unloading cargo. However, maritime law litigation does not cover injuries that occur in some situations. Vessel owners are generally protected from injuries that occur due to freak accidents, like severe weather or acts of God. Ship owners are also not responsible for any injuries that occur while the vessel is attempting to save lives.
Unfortunately there are many workers in the maritime commerce industry that aren’t considered qualified seamen. These include harbor workers, ship repairmen, skip breakers, shipbuilders and longshoremen. These professionals spend most of their time working on shore, so they can’t file maritime law litigation through the Jones Act. However, these professionals work in risky settings around heavy machinery. They are at constant risk of falling or being struck with a heavy object, which are two of the most common workplace injuries in the country. To protect these workers, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, or LHWCA, was created. Under the LHWCA, these workers are eligible for medical benefits and a portion of their weekly wages when injured.
Workers using the LHWCA to garner benefits often have to fight for their benefits through some form of maritime law litigation. In general, these claims are only allowed when the injury is caused by the negligence of someone other than an employer. If employer negligence is the cause of the injury, the worker will need to pursue the claim through means other than the LHWCA. It is often difficult for an onshore worker to determine whether or not they are eligible for benefits. For this reason, many seek legal representation from experienced experts in this area of law.