Statute of Limitations. You’ve all probably heard that term before but might not know exactly what it means. In theory, and in typical cases, it is very easy to understand. It simply means the amount of time after an accident that you have to file your lawsuit. In Massachusetts, garden variety negligence cases are governed by three-year statutes of limitations. In the commercial fishing context the federal law governing the Jones Act also calls for a three-year statute of limitations. This means that if you are injured in an accident (for instance a motor vehicle accident, a slip and fall, a construction site accident, or some other physical trauma) you have three years from the date of that accident within which to file a complaint.
With respect to an injury that occurs as a result of a single traumatic event, the same rules apply in a Jones Act case. So if you are injured while working aboard a vessel as a result of, for instance, a defective piece of equipment, a fall, or some other direct physical trauma, you have three years from the date of that accident to file your complaint.
It gets a little confusing in the context of some other cases. For instance, the law governing professional malpractice cases, primarily medical malpractice, recognizes that a person might not even know that they are injured for some time after the incident which caused their injury. The truth is patients might think they are fine after a surgery only to discover two or three or even four years later that the surgery was botched but the injury resulting from that negligent surgery did not manifest itself until years later. In such cases, the law recognizes what is called a discovery rule which provides that the three year period of time does not begin to run until the injured person knows or should have known that they have been injured and that the injury was the result of the medical malpractice.
The law governing the Jones Act also recognizes a discovery rule in the context of occupational injuries or illnesses. This is extremely important to the community of fishermen that we service. Many of our clients have conditions such as worn out shoulders, backs, hips, knees and other parts of their body and simply assume that these conditions are a result of the aging process. Their doctors may have even told them so. However, where the aging process had been accelerated by the unsafe work practices to which they were exposed over the course of their career, fishermen who suffer these conditions have legal rights under the Jones Act to seek damages against the vessel owner.
So in these cases when does the statute of limitations start to run? That can be somewhat difficult to determine. However, as noted, the Jones Act recognizes the discovery rule. So what does this mean for you? This means that the three year window within which to file a complaint begins to run when you knew or should have known that your (fill in the blank here – torn rotator cuff, herniated disc, low back pain, arthritic hip) is the diagnosis that is actually causing you pain AND that the condition was related in some way to the working conditions to which you were exposed on a vessel. So even if you have felt it was something you would just have to live with, you may still have time to determine if you have a case under the Jones Act.
The fact is, it is very important in these cases that you seek legal advice as soon as you have been diagnosed with a condition. Otherwise the three year period to file a complaint could begin to run and you do not even know that you have rights.
Commercial fishing vessels have over the last couple of decades have been extremely fortunate that fishermen have not pursued there legitimate rights to recovery for occupationally caused injuries in the fishing workplace. If you have been diagnosed, or are suffering from what has been described to you as degenerative or arthritic condition, you may have the right to sue the vessels on which you worked for monetary recovery for these conditions.
You should not be enduring long term pain as a result of a work-related fishing vessel injury. If you are suffering from one of these conditions please do not hesitate to call us at 617-773-5500 or contact us here.
FWY is extremely knowledgeable in maritime law and we welcome the opportunity to assist you.