Maritime Laws When Workers Are Injured Aboard a Vessel

A different process for maritime workers to collect workers' comp

By Trevor Kupfer | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 19, 2024 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney P. Craig Morrow, Jr.

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In most situations, when you’re injured on the job, employees should turn to workers’ compensation laws for relief for things such as medical expenses and lost wages. But thanks to a federal law commonly referred to as the Jones Act, that is not always the case for injured maritime workers.

Unlike a personal injury case under Louisiana law, an injured employee may collect damages under the Jones Act even if employer negligence was not the primary cause of their accident.

Jones Act Claims After a Maritime Injury

You must first qualify as a Jones Act seaman to qualify, and there are exceptions.

“Let’s say a crew boat is just taking what’s typically a land-based worker to work on an offshore fixed platform in the Gulf,” says P. Craig Morrow, Jr., a maritime attorney at Morrow, Morrow, Ryan, Bassett & Haik in Opelousas, Louisiana. “Then that person is just a passenger on that crew boat, and his employment function is merely incidental to him riding on that boat. In other words, you have to show that the injured worker is permanently assigned to the vessel. The [general rule] is you want to determine if that worker works at least 30 percent of the time on that vessel or an identifiable fleet of vessels, and your work has to be aiding in the navigation of that vessel.”

The other determination to make is called unseaworthiness. “Examples of an unseaworthy vessel can be an incompetent crew,” Morrow says. “If the captain told my guy to go work with an inexperienced guy, and he knew about it, and the inexperienced guy did something to injure my client, then that would be an unseaworthy condition on that vessel.”

The [general rule] is you want to determine if that worker works at least 30 percent of the time on that vessel or an identifiable fleet of vessels, and your work has to be aiding in the navigation of that vessel.

P. Craig Morrow, Jr.

The Grey Area of Maritime Accidents

Another example in which maritime law can get confusing is with fixed offshore platforms.

“The courts deem that as an artificial island under the law,” Morrow explains. “And so, you can have the exact same workers, two sets of workers, one on the fixed platform and one right next on the side of it. Or let’s call it a jack-up rig, which is considered a vessel because it’s semi-submersible. It can retract its legs, and it can be towed and moved around. So, if you have a deckhand on the jack-up rig and you have a mechanic on the fixed platform doing the exact same jobs and injured in the exact same way, their remedies under the law are drastically different. The only remedy for the one on the fixed platform is under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act or LHWCA. His remedy is solely in workers’ compensation.”

Because of complications like these—and a host of others—it is advisable to seek the counsel of an experienced maritime attorney. For more information on this area, see our overview of transportation and maritime law.

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