Why Are Maritime Lawsuits So Challenging?

One of the more vexing questions about maritime law is deceivingly simple to ask: “Why are maritime lawsuits so challenging”? In this article, we hope to answer this question by providing you with information about what sets maritime lawsuits apart from other personal injury or workers’ compensation lawsuits, as well as offering some guidance if you have been injured while working in the maritime industry.

Why are Maritime Lawsuits so Challenging?

There is no simple answer to why maritime lawsuits are challenging.  The fact is that maritime lawsuits are multi-faceted–that is, there are several elements that factor into such lawsuits that do not apply to other lawsuits.

Maritime Law/Admiralty Law

Maritime law (or admiralty law) is a specific body of laws that apply to individuals classified as seamen, longshoremen, or harbor workers.  A brief summary of these laws includes:

  • The Jones ActThe Jones Act protects seamen who have been injured while in the course of their employment. To qualify as a seaman, you must work at least 30 percent of your job onboard a vessel in navigable waters.  The Jones Act specifically protects seamen who are injured as a result of employer negligence.
  • The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) – Maritime workers who do not qualify as a seaman are covered by the LHWCA. The LHWCA protects workers who work onboard vessels, but also those who work in harbors, shipyards, or other maritime positions.  To qualify for LHWCA benefits, you do not have to prove negligence caused your injuries.
  • The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act – The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act was created to specifically protect workers on oil rigs, platforms, and permanent structures located along the continental shelf regions. These workers are not classified as seamen or harbor workers, which made it necessary for a specific set of laws to be formed in order to ensure that these workers can pursue benefits if they are injured on-the-job.
  • Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) – The DOHSA pertains to surviving family members of maritime workers killed on-the-job. Under the DOHSA, family members have the right to pursue compensation for their losses, including medical or funeral expenses, loss of financial support, and pain and suffering.

Requirements for Maritime Lawsuits

Similar to the specific, individualized nature of maritime law, there are several requirements that must be met in order to file a maritime lawsuit.  Further, depending on your classification and the individual facts of your situation, the laws that apply to your case may vary.  Some of the basic requirements for maritime lawsuits include:

  • Classification – In order to be eligible to file a maritime lawsuit, you must be classified as a maritime worker who is covered under maritime law. It is a common misconception that only seamen or sailors are covered under maritime law.  The fact is that individuals who work on a vessel in navigable waters, and who contribute directly or indirectly to the operation of the vessel may be covered.  That includes workers who contribute to such positions as cooks, clerks, stewards, musicians, bartenders, maids, or other contributory roles.
  • Time Spent on Vessel – Another requirement for filing a maritime lawsuit is that you can prove that you spent a significant amount of time working on a vessel. In most cases, the requirement is at least 30 percent of your employment.  That means that if your time is split between a shore position and a position on a vessel, then you must show that at least 30 percent of your time was spent on the vessel.
  • Navigable Vessel – As the name suggests, a navigable vessel is one that is capable of making seagoing voyages. It is important to note that the vessel does not have to be at sea when an injury occurs in order for you to seek benefits under maritime law.  Rather, the vessel has to be capable.  If you were injured on a vessel that does not operate, is still being built, or is unable to navigate on the water, you may not qualify to file a maritime lawsuit.

The Maritime Lawsuit Process

One of the elements of maritime lawsuits that many people find challenging is the process itself, and the little details that factor therein.  Here we will take a look at some of the elements of the maritime lawsuit process that may be challenging.  Consider the following:

  • Documentation – One of the most important elements of a maritime lawsuit is documentation of the accident, your injuries, medical statements and invoices, and any communication between you and your employer. Many people fail to keep detailed records, or omit information that may be helpful in establishing a case.  When that happens, the legal process may become delayed or even dismissed.
  • Statute of Limitations – Like most legal matters, there is a statute of limitations for filing maritime lawsuits. In most cases, this is three (3) years from the date of the injury.  However, in some cases, the statute is reduced (sometimes significantly), which can preclude you from filing a lawsuit if you do not act quickly.
  • Proving Negligence – Employers may have the responsibility of maintaining safe work environments, but you may have to prove that negligence occurred, which can be very challenging. Employers and insurers often try to contend that the worker was at-fault for the accident and injuries in order to avoid paying compensation.
  • Statement Pitfalls – If you have been injured on the job, it is important to file an accident report with your employer and seek medical attention immediately. What you should avoid are statement pitfalls, such as answering questions about the accident, fault, or your responsibility without your attorney present.  Often, injured workers are asked a barrage of confusing questions and are not aware of maritime law, resulting in statements that may not be completely accurate, or may be damaging to the case.
  • Appeals – After filing a maritime lawsuit, your employer has the right to appeal the case, or deny the accusations. This is one of the most challenging and time consuming elements of a maritime lawsuit.  The process of going back and forth between sides, filing motions, and seeking information can complicate and lengthen the time the case is in court.

How to Avoid Maritime Lawsuit Challenges

Some of the challenging elements of maritime lawsuits are inherent to the process and cannot be avoided.  What you can do to minimize the challenges and their effects on your case starts by consulting with a maritime injury attorney who can guide you through the process.  A skilled maritime injury attorney can help you understand what laws protect you, how to seek compensation, and what steps you can take to avoid lengthy, expensive, or unnecessary processes.