Jones Act & Overworked Seamen Claims

Can Overworked Seamen Recover Under The Jones Act?

There are a number of rules and laws that govern the trucking industry, particularly regarding the amount of time a driver is allowed to operate a big rig on a daily basis. But what are the rules and laws pertaining to other types of workers, such as seamen, who may be subject to long work hours and unpredictable schedules? A recent Federal Court of Appeals case, Skye v. Maersk Line Limited Corporation, examined whether or not a seaman who had hurt himself due to working long hours and erratic sleep patterns could recover under the Jones Act. For maritime lawyers, the case provides some insight into what types of issues can be pursued successfully under the Jones Act.

What Happened in Skye?

William Skye worked as a chief mate from 2000 to 2008 on the Sealand Pride, which was operated by Maersk. Skye routinely worked between 90 and 105 hours weekly, for 70 to 84 days at a time. Because his job required the constant overtime, Skye’s health was affected due to a lack of sleep, fatigue and stress. Because of his health concerns, Skye went to the doctor and was ultimately diagnosed with benign arrhythmia. He was advised at that time to get more rest and change his diet.

Skye was subsequently moved to a management position, which called for even more physically demanding work. Years later, he began to experience a burning sensation in his heart, headaches and a sore back. Skye returned to the doctor who then diagnosed him with left ventricular hypertrophy, which is a thickening of the heart wall. Based on his diagnosis, Skye, through his maritime lawyers, filed a suit for negligence under the Jones Act against Maersk in 2011. The lawsuit alleged that his work conditions caused his left ventricular hypertrophy and led to “physical damage to [his] heart,” and added that Maersk was negligent when it failed to allow him to work reasonable hours and obtain sufficient rest, among other things.

The Decision

At trial, both Skye and his doctor testified as to the amount of stress that resulted due to Skye’s excessive work hours. The doctor specifically noted that Skye’s working conditions “were a substantial contribution” to his left ventricular hypertrophy. At the end of the trial, Maersk sought to obtain a directed verdict based on the fact that Skye could not recover monetary damages for injuries caused by stress related to his job; however, the district court denied Maersk’s motion.

The jury ultimately decided to give Skye a little over $590,000 in damages. Maersk appealed on the basis that the award was not permitted under the Jones Act. The Court of Appeals agreed with Maersk, noting that in order for the seaman to recover, he must have been threatened with “physical impact.” The Court found that work-related stress was not the same as being injured as a result of “physical peril,” and further noted that even if Skye experienced physical effects that stemmed from his work environment, that did not qualify for recovery under the Jones Act. Skye was in the process of applying to the U.S. Supreme Court to take up this issue.

What the Decision Means for You

The case points out the fact that not all work-related injuries qualify for recovery under the Jones Act. That is why it is important for seamen and other types of maritime workers to work with well-versed maritime lawyers who will be able to advise you about your potential recovery based on the facts of your case. If you or someone you love has questions about your rights under maritime law, contact Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. today.