For the last century, a key federal law has kept workers on waterways protected from on-the-job injuries.
But it wasn’t always that way. In 1903, the U.S. Supreme Court in The Osceola held that seafarers could only pursue maintenance and cure or unseaworthiness claims — which provide living and medical expenses while recovering from an injury.
In 1915, Congress responded to the court’s decision by instituting Section 20 of the Act to Promote the Welfare of American Seamen. Five years later, that language was adapted within the 1920 Merchant Marine Act to become what is known as the Jones Act — named after its sponsor, Sen. Wesley Jones of Washington. (Jones was an Illinois native and practiced law in Decatur before moving west.)
The law will mark 100 years in effect in early June.
The statute, in part, allows “[a]ny seaman who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment may, at his election, maintain an action for damages at law.”
And even though Illinois is far from any seas, there’s plenty of workers over water across its many rivers, canals and on Lake Michigan.
In the modern era, most suits involving injured seamen involve all three claims: Jones Act negligence, maintenance and cure and unseaworthiness, according to Dennis Minichello, a shareholder at Marwedel Minichello & Reeb P.C.
“It’s been a good way for those injured on boats to be able to pursue their remedies,” Minichello said. “Of course, there’s two sides to everything. On the one hand, employers face that potential exposure and it could get costly for them, but then on the other side the seamen have their remedies.”
While the Jones Act does not specifically define the term “seaman,” courts provided their own definitions.
In 1995, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in Chandris Inc. v. Latsis that to qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act, a worker’s duties “must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission, and the worker must have a connection to a vessel in navigation that is substantial in both its duration and its nature.”
Minichello said every fact pattern is unique because the environment in which these employees work in is much different than the environment for those who work on land.
“You can end up with some very unusual fact situations that can’t really always be anticipated, and unfortunately accidents happen,” he said. “It kind of runs the gamut.”
He said what he’s seen in the last decade or so is the U.S. Coast Guard being much more actively involved in the safety aspects of the commercial boating world.
Boat owners have pushed to create safety management systems, including specific compliance and written safety procedures, and he believes that has had an affect on the number of cases being filed.
“The Coast Guard, whose main responsibility in this world is safety operations on the waterways, really decided that it was a good thing to do as a result of some large catastrophes and it was about time they became more safety-conscious,” Minichello said.
Raul J. Chacón Jr., a partner with the Miami office of Manning Gross + Massenburg LLP, and the chair of the firm’s maritime practice group, said in the last decade he has seen more of these types of cases resolved through arbitration.
Also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Miami School of Law, Chacón believes working through arbitration has helped streamline the process.
“To a certain extent it reduces the formality required in a trial with respect to different rules and civil procedures for one to comply with,” he said. “The ultimate goal through arbitration is to make things a little easier and to get to a ruling as fast as possible.”
In addition to resolving a case more expeditiously, having an arbitrator eliminates the need to educate a juror who may not be familiar with boats, ships and the work done on them.
“It removes that sympathy factor that is sometimes created by plaintiff’s attorneys who may cause a juror to unnecessarily punish an employer because they don’t understand the field,” Chacón said.