Charleston Maritime Law Lawyers
Jones Act Claims
South Carolina has some of the finest waterways in the country. Although most people are capable of obeying the law and safely operating their vessels, the negligence or recklessness of even a single person can have catastrophic results. Our lawyers include professional mariners who have sailed commercially and represented recreational and commercial vessel owners and operators in lawsuits involving life-altering injury and death in state and federal court.
Maritime law has developed a number of esoteric legal concepts over time, the nuances of which many lawyers without maritime experience simply don’t understand. Joint and several liability, pure comparative negligence, seaworthiness doctrine, pre-judgment interest, and responsibility for the burden of proof under the Pennsylvania Rule are just a few examples of the unique aspects of general maritime law.
Maritime personal injury and death lawsuits are frequently filed in federal court pursuant to 28 U.S.C.A. § 1333 as admiralty claims under F.R.C.P. Rule 9(h). All cases involving a tort committed on navigable water, whether brought under federal admiralty jurisdiction, in state court under the saving-to-suitors clause, or in federal court under diversity jurisdiction, are governed by admiralty law. Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625 (1959). Filing these cases in federal court in admiralty provides plaintiffs with numerous advantages.
First, the cases are tried non-jury before a federal judge sitting in admiralty. The Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial does not create a right to a jury trial on issues in a claim that is an admiralty or maritime claim under Rule 9(h). F.R.C.P. Rule 36. The benefits of a bench trial under these circumstances are numerous, but perhaps chief amongst them is that the judge issues the damage award. These awards have historically had the effect of fully compensating claimants for all their injuries where liability is clearly established. These damage awards often take the form of line-item awards.
Second, the doctrine of joint and several liability applies in admiralty. Edmonds v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 443 U.S. 256 (1979); Coats v. Penrod Drilling Corp., 61 F3d 1113 (5th Cir. 1995); In re Bay Runner Rentals, Inc., 113 F. Supp. 2d 795 (D.Md. 2000). The importance of joint and several liability under these circumstances is that a finding by the judge of just 1% fault on any one defendant and 99% fault on the other defendant will result in the ability to satisfy 100% of the judgment against either defendant’s insurance or assets. In essence, any one defendant owns the fault of all other defendants and can be forced to satisfy a judgment in full.
Third, the doctrine of pure comparative negligence applies in admiralty. United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., 421 U.S. 397 (1975). Under a pure comparative negligence scheme, a plaintiff’s recovery is simply reduced by his apportionment of fault and he is never barred from recovery, as would be the cause under South Carolina law if a plaintiff’s liability was 51% or more at fault. As such, a plaintiff is entitled to a recovery regardless of his percentage of fault, as long as he is not solely at fault for the accident.
Fourth, the Rule of the Pennsylvania applies in admiralty. The Pennsylvania, 86 U.S. 125 (1874). The Pennsylvania Rule provides that a statutory violation by a defendant will result in a shift of the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the violating defendant who is then presumed to be at fault and must show not only that the statutory violation did not cause the injury, but that the statutory violation could not have contributed to the injury. The Pennsylvania Rule, in other words, shifts to defendants the burden of disproving causation. Dover Barge Co. v. Tug “Crow”, 642 F. Supp. 2d 266, 274 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). This is a truly remarkable aspect of maritime law and it is exceedingly rare that a defendant can satisfy this burden.
Fifth, negligence is actionable under general maritime law. Leathers v. Blessing, 105 U.S. 626 (1882). The elements of a maritime negligence claim are the same as a land-based negligence claim. Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625 (1959). The elements of negligence are duty, a breach of that duty, proximate cause, and resulting injury. Schumacher v. Cooper, 850 F. Supp. 438, 447 (D.S.C. 1994).
Sixth, there is a long history of awarding punitive damages in admiralty. The Amiable Nancy, 16 U.S. 546, (1818). Punitive damages may be awarded in maritime claims where there has been grossly negligent conduct that demonstrates a conscious disregard for the rights of others.
Finally, the awarding of prejudgment interest is the rule rather than the exception, and, in practice, is well-nigh automatic in admiralty. U.S. Fire Ins. Co. v. Allied Towing Corp., 966 F.2d 820, 828 (4th Cir.1992). This interest is due on the full measure of damages and is frequently assessed at the applicable market rate, as district courts are not bound by state statutory rates. The pre-judgment interest on the anticipated damage award runs from the date of the accident.
Jones Act Seaman Accidents
A seaman is a member of the crew of a vessel. He is a worker on a vessel who is exposed to the perils of the sea as an incident of employment. He must spend a significant amount of time in the service of the vessel and must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.
If one qualifies as a Jones Act seaman and is injured in the service of the vessel, then the seaman is entitled to maintenance, cure, and wages until the end of the voyage. Maintenance consists of the seaman’s living expenses ashore. Cure consists of the seaman’s medical expenses until he reaches maximum medical cure. Wages through the end of the voyage are typically owed not to the next port of call, but through the ship’s articles of agreement (term of his contract).
A Jones Act seaman has two remedies: Negligence and unseaworthiness. It is generally recognized that an employer’s liability under these two causes of action are among the most liberal theories of recovery for maritime personal injuries. The bases for a negligence claim may be found in statutory law, common law, industry regulations, industry standards and customs, and the vessel’s own Safety Management System, which is mandatory under the International Safety Management Code.
Unseaworthiness claims arise under the general maritime law and are asserted against the vessel in rem. A vessel and its operator owe members of the vessel’s crew the duty to furnish a seaworthy vessel, i.e. one which is reasonably fit for its intended use. Since the intended use of the vessel by the seaman is as a place to live and work, seaworthiness in the context of a seaman’s claim, means that the vessel must be a reasonably fit place to both live and work. Because the duty is absolute, it is sometimes called a warranty. This warranty is owed by the operator of the vessel to members of the vessel’s crew and is often a factual inquiry as to whether the particular condition was unreasonably dangerous under the circumstances, without regard to whether or not the operator of the vessel had actual or constructive knowledge of the condition. In this regard, an unseaworthiness claim is akin to a strict liability claim, where the plaintiff need only prove that the dangerous condition existed and that it proximately caused his injuries.
A seaman who is successful in asserting a negligence or unseaworthiness claim may recover traditional tort damages, including past medical expenses, future medical expenses, past loss of income, future loss of earning power, past and future pain and suffering, past and future emotional distress, past and future loss of enjoyment of life, permanent impairment, and prejudgment interest. Importantly, punitive damages may be recoverable under an unseaworthiness claim where grossly negligent conduct is proven.
It is important to retain an attorney who is an experienced professional mariner to maximize your recovery in a Jones Act seaman personal injury claim.
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