What is Comparative Negligence in a Jones Act Lawsuit?

The Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act, dates to 1920. Jones Act legislation protects a shipboard employee who sustains an injury at sea or on other navigable waters. Seamen are not entitled by law to the workers’ compensation insurance that covers those who work on land. The Jones Act provides similar coverage with a few important differences that call for the expertise of maritime law firms. The primary difference between a workers’ compensation claim and a Jones Act claim lies in the concept of comparative negligence. While workers comp provides full coverage for an injured employee, a Jones Act case allows the court to divide liability between the seaman and the employer. The employer is responsible to prove that the injured person specifically contributed to the accident through negligence or willful actions. The best way for injured seamen to defend their rights against comparative negligence claims is to secure representation by an experienced Jones Act lawyer. Similar to an insurance firm’s determination that each driver was partially at fault for an automobile accident, the Jones Act allows a jury to assign a percentage of responsibility for an injury to the victim – or employee – in the incident. For example, if a diesel mechanic is badly burned while working on a ship’s engine, a jury might determine that the mechanic was 20 percent at fault for the accident because they failed to wear appropriate protective gear. The employer would be 80 percent at fault. If the damage award totaled $10,000, the mechanic would recover $8000, which amounts to 80 percent. On the positive side, even when the court determines a maritime worker is more than 50 percent responsible for the accident, they still recover the portion of the total that equals the employer’s share of fault. In non-Jones Act cases, plaintiffs could receive no compensation if the court determines that they are the primary at-fault party. Thus, while comparative negligence can reduce the damages the worker receives; it does not completely bar a seaman from recovering injury compensation. A damage award includes maintenance and cure. Maintenance supplies the injured worker with funds for food and shelter while they are away from work due to injury. Cure covers the medical care required for the injured employee’s recovery. Any shipboard worker, from the captain to the deck hand, is covered under the Jones Act. It applies to all industries that operate offshore, including travel cruises, fishing, shrimping, and oil drilling, shipping and dredging. Any injury occurring on the job typically qualifies for coverage. Even though a maritime worker who sustains an injury is theoretically entitled to full compensation, the Jones Act enables employers to legally challenge a damage claim. Employers are likely to seek settlement with employees prior to answering a claim in court, citing the comparative negligence clause as a bargaining tool to reduce the amount that they ultimately pay the worker. Settling out of court may be attractive to both parties. It saves time and legal fees. Also, because the injured worker is at a financial disadvantage due to mounting medical bills and loss of wages, they often cannot hold out for a court’s decision before obtaining compensation. In such a situation, an injured maritime worker should retain an experienced Jones Act lawyer to protect their rights in negotiating an equitable settlement. When appropriate, the Jones Act allows attorneys with maritime law firms to seek damages for the client’s pain and suffering as well. If the employer’s insurance firm refuses an equitable settlement, an experienced maritime attorney is fully prepared to pursue the matter in court.