Last week in this space we discussed the requirements that the Jones Act imposes on vessel owners to provide a reasonably safe work place and how failing to have in place fundamental safety practices such as safe lifting practices and techniques and training can expose fishermen to repetitive trauma over time which can cause injury, acceleration of otherwise normally occurring conditions and, as a result, impose liability on the vessel owner.
One very important aspect of, the law to keep in mind on this topic is the relaxed causation standard that Congress adopted in the Jones Act. Under this standard an injured seaman is entitled to recovery from the vessel owner if the dangerous workplace contributed to cause their injuries, “in whole or in part”. Over time, the “in whole or in part” standard has been interpreted on several occasions by the United States Supreme Court, most recently in 2011. In essence this language means that so long as the vessel owners negligence in providing an unsafe workplace contributed in any way, however slight, to an injury or the development, exacerbation or acceleration of a medical condition, then the vessel owner will be held responsible. Some courts have even described the Jones Act causation standard as only requiring an infinitesimal negligence, meaning that, even if there are a thousand reasons for a seaman’s injury (including age related degenerative arthritis), so long as the vessel owner’s negligence was but one of these causes, the seaman is still entitled to recover.
This is quite different than the standard that is imposed in a normal negligence case and allows recovery against a vessel owner even when there would not have been enough of a connection in a garden variety negligence case that was not covered by the Jones Act.
Practically speaking, if you have been injured even in some slight way due to your maritime workplace, your doctor needs to know when trying to determine what has caused your condition, that the Jones Act slight causation standard. Many times we are confronted with cases where doctors treating our injured maritime clients do not understand this causation standard and are reluctant to link our clients’ injuries to the workplace practices, until they are educated to the causation standard, at which time they have no problem doing so. It is very important for you, if injured or suffering from a condition that may be related under the Jones Act to your employer’s failure to provide a reasonably safe workplace, to let your doctor know the standard. Otherwise, your doctor, may end up creating statements in your medical records which are legally inaccurate and which may create issues in any potential Jones Act that you might bring against your employer.
We can help you in this regard. Indeed it is crucial for you to seek appropriate legal representation in order to determine how best to handle this issue and ensure that your doctor does not inadvertently do anything which might jeopardize your Jones Act case. If you have been injured or are suffering from effects of a condition which you feel may be related, in whole or part, in some infinitesimally slight way from the job you have been performing on a vessel, please don’t hesitate to contact us.