Can the Family of a Filipino Cargo Vessel Crew Member Who Died Following a Workplace Accident File a Jones Act Lawsuit?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Life saver Workplace accidents are extremely common, especially in the maritime industry. Though there are times when unforeseen circumstances are the cause of maritime workers experiencing injuries at work, the vast majority of injuries that take place while a crew members are at work are caused by either the employer’s or another crew member’s negligent actions. This includes the employer’s failure to maintain a reasonably safe work environment free from equipment failure, among other things. Though all maritime operators are required by law to maintain a reasonably safe workplace, many fail to do so, resulting in worker injuries, illness and even death.

A recent maritime workplace incident may highlight this disturbing fact. Did this incident result from negligence? Let’s explore the details.

Last week, a 39-year-old Filipino crew member who was working aboard the container ship Cap Posada was killed while on duty. The accident occurred at the Port of Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 18, 2014.

According to news reports, an investigation by the Port Police and the Federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration showed that the victim died as a result of “an industrial accident” aboard the cargo vessel. The victim sustained blunt force trauma to the head after a cable broke on the vessel as some containers were being moved. Additionally, it appears as though the actual accident occurred at some point between 10:15 and 10:30 pm; however, the victim’s body was not discovered until approximately 10:45 pm. Why was there a 15 to 30 minute lag time between the moment the accident occurred and when the victim’s body was found? Was he working unsupervised? Did the cable break because it was faulty or because the containers were overloaded?

These are all important questions that need to be addressed in order to determine whether the victim’s surviving dependants can file a negligence or wrongful death lawsuit and whether they can even file it here on the United States or whether they will be barred from doing so.

One of the most common types of maritime lawsuits filed is a Jones Act Action. The Jones Act is U.S. federal law that protects “seamen” in the event they are injured during the course of their employment as a result of negligence. The law is extremely critical to the protection of crew member rights because prior to the law’s enactment in 1920, crew members injured or those who developed an occupational disease while in the service of a vessel were only allowed to collect damages from the owner of the vessel if the accident or illness resulted from the ship’s “unseaworthiness.” Because of the Jones Act, victims can now recover damages based on negligence that results from the unsafe practices of the ship’s master or other crew members, or from the employer’s failure to provide a reasonably safe work environment.

The Jones Act can also protect a crew member’s right to compensation in the event that the injury or illness is the result of land-based work. The circumstances contributing to the injury or illness do not have to take place aboard a vessel.

Though at first glance it may seem as though the definitions of the law are clear cut, the Jones Act is actually extremely complex. The law does not clearly define the term “seaman,” which means it’s up to the courts to decide whether a maritime worker will actually be entitled to the law’s protections. Generally, a seaman is a type of worker who spends 30 percent or more of their work time aboard a vessel.

But let’s say the injury or illness stemming from negligence resulted in death, as appears to be the case in this particular incident. Can the victim’s family file a lawsuit under the Jones Act?

The answer is not as clear cut as it would appear. The general answer is yes. When a seaman dies as a result of a workplace injury, generally their personal representative or the executor of their estate has the right to file a lawsuit. However, depending on the Seaman’s employment contract and the jurisdiction wherein the claim can be brought, every case does not have the same answer.

This is why it is extremely important that any crew member who has suffered injuries or illness while in the employ of a vessel contact a Jones Act lawyer in order to determine the law that applies to their particular case.