International waters are bodies of water outside of national jurisdiction where no individual nation has definitive control. They generally begin beyond state territorial waters, usually defined as a belt of coastal waters extending 12 nautical miles from the low water mark of a coastal state. However, for some federal maritime law statutes such as the Death on the High Seas Act, the definition of the “high seas” is construed to mean a point beyond three nautical miles from the shore of any state. Workers who are injured or killed while serving aboard vessels making Transatlantic or Transpacific voyages are covered by the federal maritime law. If you or a loved one is injured or killed while working on a foreign voyage, you may be entitled to financial compensation. Maritime law is complex and differs in many respects from state or federal land-based law. That is why you need a lawyer experienced in handling maritime cases. The lawyers at O’Bryan Baun Karamanian have the knowledge and experience to help you get the justice you deserve.
Individuals who are injured or killed while serving as crew members aboard vessels are covered by the Jones Act. The Jones Act is a negligence statute that was originally passed in 1920 by the U.S. Congress in an effort to protect the rights of crewmen injured in the course of their employment. In 1949, the Supreme Court spoke to the policy and reasoning underlying the law:
“It was designed to put on the …industry some of the costs for the legs, eyes, arms, and lives…consumed in its operations.”
Over the years, thousands of court decisions have interpreted the Jones Act, construing it to mean that any negligence on the part of the employer which causes or contributes to a crew member’s injury, however slightly, is sufficient upon which to fix liability. In other words, any time an employer has been negligent and a crewman has been hurt, the injured worker has a remedy in court. Workers with a substantial connection to a vessel in navigation whose duties contribute to the function of the vessel are defined as crew members or seamen. From a captain to a busboy and all jobs in between, anyone with a substantial connection to a vessel in navigation is covered. A worker need not be part of the navigation crew to be covered, and even if a vessel is docked, if it’s staffed and ready to go, it can be considered “in navigation.”
Under maritime law, a shipowner has an absolute and non-delegable duty to provide a seaworthy vessel for its crew. The doctrine of unseaworthiness is a separate and distinct theory of liability (apart from the Jones Act) against a shipowner/employer. When this duty is breached, the vessel is said to be unseaworthy. Unseaworthiness means that some aspect of a vessel, her equipment or crew, are not reasonably fit for their intended purposes. Unseaworthiness can arise from insufficient manpower for a task, defective equipment, or an unsafe condition. In the eyes of the law, unseaworthiness does not mean the vessel must sink to be considered unseaworthy. The vessel owner is responsible for injuries caused by unseaworthy conditions, whether or not he or she knows of them. It is their responsibility to make sure their vessel is safe for crewmen. A vessel must have proper safety equipment, a safe way to board and exit, safe equipment, and a generally safe working and living environment.
DEATH ON THE HIGH SEAS CLAIMS:
The Death on the High Seas Act permits families of sailors and seamen who have been killed aboard vessels working on the high seas to recover damages, including lost future earnings potential of the deceased crewman, caused by negligence or unseaworthiness. In order to recover, the family member must have been dependent upon the deceased. Currently, the Death on the High Seas Act also applies to air travel over international waters outside the boundaries of the United States.
Both the Jones Act and general maritime law doctrine of unseaworthiness allow for recovery of compensatory damages, which are designed to compensate the victim for his losses and make him whole. They can include payments for lost income, pain, suffering, mental anguish, loss of life’s enjoyment, embarrassment, scarification, and loss of future earning capacity. If you have been injured as a result of negligence or unseaworthiness, you may be entitled to compensatory damages. Additionally, in some circumstances an injured worker may also be entitled to punitive damages. As its name suggests, punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer for his misconduct and/or curb the wrongdoer and others from engaging in similar conduct in the future. The courts have allowed punitive damages for a shipowner’s willful and callous failure to pay maintenance and cure as well as an employer’s willful and wanton breach of the general maritime law duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. Whether an injured worker is entitled to punitive damages is always a fact-intensive inquiry.
MAINTENANCE AND CURE:
Jones Act seamen are generally entitled to maintenance and cure whenever they are injured and/or fall ill while in the service of their vessel.
Maintenance is a daily sustenance allowance paid to a seaman for any illness or injury sustained in the service of the ship, until maximum medical improvement is reached regardless of fault or blame (unless the injury or illness results from willful misconduct, such as drunkenness). In layman’s terms, if a crew member is injured or becomes sick while working, the employer must make periodic payments to him. It does not matter who’s to blame for the injury or sickness so long as it happens while the seaman is working. Comparative negligence is not a defense. The amount of maintenance you receive is supposed to approximate your reasonable daily living expenses and includes an amount for lodging, food, utilities, transportation and other necessary living expenses.
Cure is payment for reasonable and necessary medical treatment. If a seaman is injured or falls ill while working, he is entitled to have his medical bills paid for by his employer.
UNEARNED WAGES ON FOREIGN OR FISHING VOYAGES:
Unearned wages are payable under the doctrine of maintenance and cure. They are comprised of the compensation you would have received under the Articles or employment agreement if not for leaving the ship due to injury or illness. Unearned wages can include straight time, overtime, tips, accumulated leave time and other fringe benefits. Some jurisdictions allow Collective Bargaining Agreements to limit or modify the amount of unearned wages.