South Carolina has had a strong maritime tradition since its founding as one of the original 13 British colonies due to its strategic location on the Southeast coast of the United States. South Carolina is home to two state-run ports; the largest and most important is the Port of Charleston. This facility is operated by the South Carolina State Port Authority (SPA). The SPA also runs the smaller ports of Georgetown. These maritime facilities are major job providers for seamen and longshore workers. These maritime workers are at risk of being injured in on-the-job accidents, many of which are the result of negligence by their employers.
The Ports of Charleston, Georgetown, and Maritime Accidents
The city of Charleston is one of the oldest maritime communities in the South. Since its establishment as “Charles Towne” in 1670, the community has had ties with the rest of the world’s economy via its port. The Port of Charleston spans parts of Charleston, North Charleston, and Mount Pleasant. It features five public terminals owned and administered by the SPA and handles a combination of intermodal container ships, vehicle carriers, break-bulk, bulk, and project cargo vessels. The Port of Charleston also has a cruise terminal which serves as the home port for the Carnival Fantasy.
According to the SPA, the Port of Charleston handled 1.56 million TEUs (20-ft Equivalent Units) of container cargo in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, as well as 723,420 tons of breakbulk cargo.
The smaller Port of Georgetown is South Carolina’s second busiest seaport. It is dedicated to handling break-bulk and bulk cargo. Per the SPA, the Port of Georgetown handled 494,645 pier-tons in FY 2013. Most of the cargo that passed through Georgetown included steel, cement, and forest products. Together, the Ports of Charleston and Georgetown served 1,839 ships in their terminals and created, directly or indirectly, 260,800 trade-related jobs in South Carolina.
Whether workers are employed on ships as seamen, in the ports as stevedores, dockers, or harbor workers, or involved in transportation and distribution of sea-borne products, most maritime jobs are dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only commercial fishing is more dangerous than other maritime jobs.
Maritime work is physically demanding and takes place in environments full of potential natural and man-made hazards. In many instances, seamen do 18 or more hours’ worth of arduous work a day, especially at sea. They also are at risk of running into heavy seas and bad weather, being burned in shipboard fires or explosions, or of sustaining serious injuries in such accidents as collisions with another vessel or a disastrous sinking.
Workers in the Ports of Charleston and Georgetown also work under hazardous conditions. They must work either on large ships full of heavy cargo containers or in busy terminals around heavy machinery and a plethora of moving vehicles. Crane accidents are common in ports such as Charleston and Georgetown, as are slip-trip-and-falls, container-related heavy object impacts, and forklift accidents.
In 2007, Port of Charleston longshore worker Michael Clarkin was awarded a $13.2 million settlement as a result of a 2004 accident which nearly killed him. On November 18, 2004, Clarkin was sitting in the driver’s seat of his Ford Explorer, which was parked 35-40 feet away from where containers were being loaded onto trucks for transport. An empty container broke loose from a top lifter, fell 50 feet and crashed onto Clarkin’s vehicle. The accident nearly killed the experienced dockworker and caused permanent physical and mental injuries, including leg and back trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger issues, and impaired mental skills.
Maritime Accident Compensation
Maritime workers who are injured on the job have certain rights and protections under maritime and U.S. laws. Seamen are entitled under admiralty law to receive maintenance and cure payments while they’re recovering from their work-related injuries. The Jones Act also has provisions that allows seamen to seek legal compensation for injuries caused by a negligent employer.
Most maritime employees in South Carolina ports, including those in Charleston and Georgetown, are most dockworkers, stevedores, and vehicle operators who are not covered by the Jones Act. Instead, they are given compensation under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). The LHWCA provides compensation equaling two-thirds of an injured worker’s average weekly wages while being medically treated after an on-the-job accident. Other types of compensation include payments for varying degrees of disability, loss or reduced use of specific body parts, and survivors’ benefits to spouses, children, or other eligible dependents if the worker dies as a result of the accident.