Maritime law, sometimes referred to as admiralty law, is a unique body of law that governs maritime legal issues, questions, and concerns. Maritime law covers both domestic and private international laws and covers a myriad of regulations and rules, including shipping, cargo, maritime injuries, passenger transportations, goods transportation, accidents, and personal injuries.
Maritime Law in the United States
Each country has its own set of rules and regulations pertaining to maritime law. In the United States, under Title 28, § 1333, federal courts have jurisdiction over all maritime laws and claim matters, including the right to file a maritime lawsuit in the appropriate state court. Additionally, federal maritime law allows seamen to file “joint and several liability,” meaning more than one party can be sued for injuries, even if the liable parties only contributed a small fraction to the injuries.
Most states don’t allow joint and several liability, but this is an important aspect of maritime law as it allows many parties to be liable instead of just one even if the state where the injury took place doesn’t recognize this law.
Types of Maritime Laws
When an accident and injury occurs, maritime law separates the type of damages maritime workers can claim according to who was injured, where the injury took place, and the circumstances surrounding the injury:
Maintenance and Cure
When seamen are injured during work, they are generally entitled to maintenance and cure benefits, regardless of how or when the accident happened, as long as it happened while the seaman was working. Maintenance covers the seaman’s daily living expenses during recovery, such as rent or mortgage, utilities, food, and taxes. However, expenses that are considered optional, such as cable television or Internet bills are typically not covered. In addition, automobile expenses, including gas, repairs, and insurance are not included as they aren’t considered necessary to run a household.
Cure covers the medical expenses associated with the injury during the time of recovery, including doctor visits, medication, examinations, rehabilitation, any special medical equipment needed, as well as the costs associated with traveling to medical appointments.
If you’ve been injured, maintenance and cure will last until a qualified physician gives you a clean bill of health and determines you’re able to return back to work. However, if you feel that you still aren’t fully recovered, it’s important to get a second or even third medical opinion, because if you return to work even though you aren’t fully recovered, you run the risk of eliminating other benefits and compensation you may be entitled to.
The Jones Act
Unlike maintenance and cure, seamen who are seeking benefits under the Jones Act must prove that their injuries are a result of negligence by another party and that the injuries happened while at work. Employers are typically liable for damages should an injury occur, but the burden of proof is on the seaman. However, it’s important to note that the burden of proof in Jones Act cases is much lower than typical personal injury cases. Under maritime law, seamen only need to prove that their employer played a role, no matter how small, in causing the accident that led to their injuries. Typical reasons for employer liability under the Jones Act includes:
- Failing to ensure that equipments parts are up-to-date and working correctly
- Spills, such as oil and grease, on the ship’s deck
- Failure to properly train employees before putting them to work
- Co-worker assault
- Failure to provide the proper safety gear and equipment
- Overworking employees, leading to fatigue and repetitive use injuries
- Failure to place warning and hazard signs around dangerous areas
Damages under the Jones Act include lost wages, medical expenses, pain, suffering, disfigurement (if applicable), lost wages, lost earning capacity, and more. The amount of damages will depend upon the severity of the injury and the details surrounding each individual case. It’s important to mention that aside from the initial accident and injury report, you should never sign any paperwork given to you by your employer or an insurance agent that works for your employer until you have an experienced maritime accident attorney carefully review the documents. All too often, employers would rather downplay their responsibility when an accident happens and insurance agents may attempt to coerce into signing away your rights.
The statute of limitations for the Jones Act is three years from the time of the injury. An exception applies to the statute if your lawsuit is against a vessel that’s owned and contracted by the United States. In this instance, the statute of limitations is shorter, and will depend upon each individual case.
The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA)
Maritime law also recognizes a workers’ compensation program, known as the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation, that provides compensation to workers who are injured while working on navigable waters or on and around adjoining areas of navigable waters, such as loading and unloading cargo from vessels, repairing ships, or working on decks and piers.
The LHWCA covers any worker employed in maritime occupations, including longshore workers, harbor workers, shipbreakers, and ship mechanics. The Act excludes anyone who is eligible for state benefits and compensation, such office and retail workers, small vessel workers, and in some instances, recreational vessel workers.
The basic requirements of LHWCA entail the following:
- Injured employees are eligible to receive 66 2/3 percent of their weekly wages for as long as they are recovering.
- Injured employees are eligible for compensation for permanent disabilities and loss of limbs and organs in order to replace loss of earning capacity.
- In the event of death, widows are entitled to 50% of pay, according to the Secretary of State’s national average.
- Within 10 dates of the injury or within 10 days from the date that the employer was informed of the injury, a report must be furnished to the director in the district in which the injury took place.
The statute of limitations for LHWCA is one year from the date of the injury. However, if your employer begins providing compensation and benefits, the statute of limitations will start as soon as your employer stops paying. For example, your employer can pay benefits and compensation for two years. Even though it’s over the one-year time period, the statute of limitations will begin regardless of how long your employers pays you. Yet, even if your employer is paying you while injured, it’s recommended that you still file a formal claim within one year of your injury. This will help make it clear and known that you are filing for benefits under LHWCA.
Death on High Seas Act
The Death on High Seas Act (DOHSA), enacted by Congress in 1920, applies to any maritime accident that happens more than three miles away from the shores of the United States and its territories. It provides recovery damages for the death of a maritime worker if the death was caused by a “wrongful act, neglect or default occurring on the high seas beyond a marine league (3 miles) from the shore of any state.” A DOHSA claim can only be filed on behalf of the deceased person by a spouse, child, dependent relatives, or their representatives.
The amount the surviving family is entitled to is calculated by the compensation that would have been received had the maritime worker not died. In addition, compensation is calculated for care and guidance that the deceased worker’s children will now live without. The amount of the final compensation accounts for the actual amount of the financial contribution the maritime worker would have made to the household, minus a set amount that would have been used on deceased for themselves.
Although the DOHSA doesn’t allow damages for loss of consortium, a surviving spouse can claim compensation for the value of domestic household services that the deceased spouse would have provided. In addition, in 2000, Congress amended DOSHA to include pecuniary damages for the loss of comfort and companionship for those who lost a loved one who died while working and in a commercial airplane crash. The crash must have happened after July 16, 1996.
The statute of limitations for DOHSA is three years from the date of death.
Passenger Personal Injury
Maritime law also covers passengers aboard cruise ships and other vessels who are injured while out to sea. As a result, passengers have the right to file suit against a shipowner should an accident occur because of the shipowner’s or crew’s negligence.
For example, if a passenger falls down a flight of stairs while aboard a cruise, they have the right to file for damages if the fall occurred because of broken steps or a broken rail. The statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit as a passenger is typically three years. Yet, passengers on a cruise ship are typically limited to a one year statute of limitations because there are usually limitations listed on the passenger ticket.