If you or a family member has been seriously hurt while working as a harbor or maritime employee, our maritime personal injury lawyers are here to help. Working in the commercial maritime industry is difficult and often dangerous.
Offshore maritime accidents are a regular occurrence and they often have tragic outcomes for those involved. When these accidents result in serious personal injuries or death, the victims and their family members are entitled to financial compensation. On this page, we will look at how to go about getting compensation for an offshore accident.
Common Offshore Accidents
Almost any type of accident can occur offshore in the maritime industry, however, there are certain categories of offshore accidents that tend to generate the most personal injury claims.
One of the biggest maritime industries today is offshore oil drilling and exploration. Offshore oil drilling operations are inherently dangerous because of the combustible nature of oil and the volatile process of extracting it from the earth. Although offshore drilling fires are infrequent when they do occur they are the most disastrous type of offshore accident.
The blowout and resulting explosion on the Deepwater Horizon served as a very public reminder of the damage that these types of accidents can cause. 11 workers were killed and countless more suffered very serious injuries.
Offshore fires and explosions are not limited to drilling operations. Fires offshore occur even more frequently on commercial vessels. All large ships and vessels carry massive amounts of diesel fuel to power their engines. This makes the fuel supply and storage systems on commercial vessels a common source of fires. The constant stress of commercial operations on the open water wears down parts, pipes, and all types of mechanical systems. A simple lapse in maintenance can result in major fires and explosions.
Accidents on deck are the most common cause of offshore injuries in the commercial maritime industry. The deck of a commercial vessel is usually a crowded, busy place with a maze of heavy equipment moving all over the place. Add to this the moving and rocking of the ship and it’s not hard to see why deck injuries are so common.
Failures in equipment or machinery on a ship is another common cause of offshore accidents and injuries. Equipment in the offshore maritime industry tends to be very big and heavy. This means that just about every piece of equipment onboard a ship can be dangerous and potentially even deadly if it malfunctions. Equipment failures are often the result of improper maintenance or incorrect use.
Tugboat & Barge Injuries
Tugboats are incredibly powerful vessels that push and pull ships of immense size and weight. To accomplish this heavy-duty task, tugboats utilize some of the biggest, and most powerful equipment in the maritime industry. Tugboats crews operate this equipment under some of the most intense and high-pressure circumstances. This makes the deck of a tugboat an extremely dangerous place, especially when a barge or large ship is attached. The most common source of injuries on tugboats are the massive tow lines and shackles.
Common Causes of Offshore Accidents and Injuries
Offshore accidents in the commercial maritime industry have all sorts of complex causes, but here are some of the most common reasons why offshore injuries occur.
Most offshore maritime accidents are the direct result of the negligence of other crew members onboard the ship. The commercial maritime industry can be very hard and crews often work grueling schedules, so fatigue, distraction, and neglect are a constant problem. With all the various moving parts and equipment on a crowded deck, however, the margins for error on a commercial vessel are much narrower than in a regular working environment. This makes crewmember negligence the leading cause of offshore accidents.
Cell Phone Distraction
Cell phone or wireless device distraction is becoming an increasingly common cause of offshore maritime accidents and injuries. Just like texting and driving, texting, or cell phone use while working on a commercial vessel can be very dangerous and leads to a lot of accidents. Cell phone distraction has been linked to accidents with on-deck equipment and also vessel collisions and groundings. The problem has become so prevalent that the U.S. Coast Guard recently issued a safety notice warning mariners about the dangers of cell phone distractions.
Coast Guard advisory regulations suggest that ship owners and operators adopt and enforce strict policies on cell phone use while on duty on a commercial vessel. Most owners and operators have followed this advice and banned cell phone use while on the clock.
What Is the Jones Act and How Does It Work?
Lawsuits under the Jones Act are a means for maritime workers who qualify as “seamen” to seek compensation for injuries they sustain while working on a vessel. The act is one of the key pieces of legislation governing compensation for maritime injuries, offering protections somewhat akin to workers’ compensation for land-based employees, but with some significant differences. Here are the key points you want to understand if you think you may have a claim under the Jones Act:
- Seaman Status: To file a lawsuit under the Jones Act, a maritime worker must be considered a “seaman.” This is generally defined as someone who spends a significant amount of their work time on a vessel or fleet that is in navigation, and their work contributes to the vessel’s function or mission.
- Negligence Claims: Unlike traditional workers’ compensation, the Jones Act requires the injured seaman to prove that their injury was caused by negligence on the part of the employer, the vessel owner, officers, crew, or any defects in the vessel itself. So it is more like a regular tort claim. This could include unsafe working conditions, inadequate training, or failure to provide proper equipment.
- Maintenance and Cure: Regardless of fault, maritime employers must provide “maintenance and cure” to seamen injured in the course of their employment until they reach maximum medical recovery. “Maintenance” covers living expenses, and “cure” covers medical expenses.
- Unseaworthiness Claims: Alongside the Jones Act, seamen can also bring claims of unseaworthiness, which hold that the vessel, its gear, or its crew was not reasonably fit for their intended use, leading to the injury.
- Damages: In Jones Act claims, seamen may recover damages for past and future medical expenses, lost wages, loss of earning capacity, pain and suffering, and more. These damages can be substantial, reflecting the full extent of the harm suffered, and there are no damage caps, even in states that otherwise have damage caps.
- Comparative Negligence: If the case goes to trial, the court may apply the principle of comparative negligence. This means that if the seaman was partially at fault for their injury, any award could be reduced in proportion to their share of the blame. This is huge in contributory negligence states like Maryland and Virginia because it allows for claims that would otherwise be barred.
- Statute of Limitations: The Jones Act has a three-year statute of limitations, meaning that lawsuits must be filed within three years of the injury date.
- Jury Trials: The Jones Act grants the right to a jury trial, which is not typically available under workers’ compensation laws.
When a seaman files a lawsuit under the Jones Act, it is typically handled in federal court, although it can sometimes be brought in state court. These cases can be complex and hinge on various factors, including the circumstances of the injury, the employment status of the injured party, and the conditions on the vessel. So seamen who have serious injury claims and families who have wrongful death lawsuits under this act should seek experienced maritime attorneys to handle their claims under the Jones Act.
Maritime Injury Settlements and Verdicts
Below are summaries of settlements and verdicts in recent cases involving maritime injuries.
$3,300,000 Verdict (New York 2023): A jury awarded a towboat deckhand a $3.3 million verdict after finding the employer negligent. The man was instructed to be on a barge during the cleaning of a bright yellow corn gluten fertilizer, which was argued to be an unsafe work condition. Following his exposure to the substance, the deckhand was hospitalized with acute hypoxic respiratory failure and required subsequent ongoing respiratory treatments. His attorneys claimed the incident exacerbated his pre-existing asthma to a permanent condition. The defense contended the asthma was a pre-existing condition since childhood, exacerbated by a separate incident weeks prior while working for a different employer. The jury did not buy it. They awareded the man $3.3 million in damages.
$2,500,000 Verdict (Missouri 2022): A former barge employee sued a barge company for injuries sustained on the job when a wire he was working with snapped, causing him to fall and dislocate his kneecap. Following the injury, he returned to work but later developed further knee problems, leading to surgeries and the likelihood of knee replacement. The employee argued that the company’s negligence with equipment and safety protocols led to his injury. The St. Louis County jury sided with him, awarding $3.325 million in damages, which after fault assessments, amounted to a $2.5 million recovery for the plaintiff.
$446,991 Verdict (Florida 2021): This maritime personal injury claim was brought after a 40-year-old female reportedly suffered a fractured patella, requiring surgery and resulting in a 13% permanent impairment to the lower right extremity, when she slipped and fell while walking on the deck of a cruise ship owned by Carnival Cruise Line. The plaintiff contended that the defendant’s crew allowed heavy mechanical grease or oil to remain on the floor where there was not an open or obvious risk of fall, thereby breaching its duty to the plaintiff and that the defendant had actual notice of the dangerous condition since another cruise passenger had fallen in the same spot approximately one hour before the plaintiff’s fall.
$4,000,000 Verdict (Florida 2021): A former server on Disney Cruise Line’s ship Dream suffered injuries after being hit by a car while on shore leave in the Bahamas. She initially received maintenance and cure benefits from Disney, payments that are mandated under the Jones Act to cover living and medical expenses for injured seamen. However, after being deemed to have reached maximum medical improvement and experiencing further health complications, her benefits were discontinued by Disney. A Brevard County jury found Disney 70% negligent, awarding the former server $1 million for pain and suffering, $2 million for economic damages, including lost earnings and medical expenses, and an additional $1 million in punitive damages. Why did the jury award punitive damages? The punitive damages were for Disney’s alleged bad faith in discontinuing payments. A Florida appeals court later overturned most of the $4 million award, including the punitive damages award.
$266,500 Verdict (Washington 2020): A 29-year-old man reportedly sustained a head injury with post-concussive symptoms including psychological and cognitive issues, as well as thoracic and lumbar disc herniations when he was injured while performing gauging and inspection services on a petroleum barge at a dock in Seattle. The injury occurred when he slipped while attempting to disembark and fell 10 feet. He sued the barge owner for negligence in what amounted to a maritime premises liability claim.
How Can Injured Offshore Workers Get Compensation?
Maritime workers who are injured in offshore accidents are protected under a federal law called the Jones Act. The Jones Act gives injured maritime workers the right to bring personal injury claims against their employer for negligence. The Jones Act also allows claims to be filed if the vessel was “unseaworthy.” Injured maritime workers who bring claims under the Jones Act can get damages for medical expenses and also for pain & suffering.
How Long Do I Have to File a Jones Act Claim for an Offshore Accident?
The statute of limitations for filing a claim under the Jones Act for an offshore accident is 3 years from the date of the injury. If you don’t file your Jones Act claim within 3 years of the injury, you will lose your right to compensation. There are some limited exceptions to this. For instance, if you suffer an internal injury and you learn about it until you get diagnosed years later, your 3 years would not start until you discover the injury.
There is a much shorter time limit, however, if your offshore injury occurred on a vessel owned by the U.S. Government.
What if Your Employer Was Not Responsible for the Accident?
You can only bring a claim under the Jones Act if your employer was negligent and caused the accident. However, if the accident was caused by the negligence of someone other than your employer, you can bring a regular maritime personal injury claim. For example, if you are injured offshore because of a design defect in a piece of equipment, you can bring a product liability case against the manufacturer.
Contact Our Maryland Offshore Accident Lawyers for Help
The maritime personal injury lawyers at Miller & Zois can help get the compensation you are entitled to for an offshore maritime accident. Call us today at 800-553-8082 or contact us online.