The Jones Act, Unseaworthiness, and Jury Trials Article by Richard Martin

Richard Martin, New Orleans Maritime Attorney

Lamothe Law Firm attorney Richard Martin wrote an article for maritime attorneys published in the recent issue of the Louisiana Association for Justice publication, Louisiana Advocate. The article is entitled “THE JONES ACT, UNSEAWORTHINESS, AND JURY TRIALS.” Read the entire article below.

THE JONES ACT, UNSEAWORTHINESS, AND JURY TRIALS
By Richard M. Martin
Lamothe Law Firm, LLC

Because many Louisiana trial lawyers never represent a maritime client, despite there being navigable water bodies everywhere in the State, they might be unfamiliar with Jones Act negligence claims and General Maritime Law unseaworthiness claims, and when you do or do not get a jury.

A. JONES ACT CLAIMS

The Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104 et seq., is a federal statute originally passed in 1920 that extended the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA) to seamen. It is a statutory remedy, whereas claims for unseaworthiness arise under the General Maritime Law. 46 U.S.C. § 30104 and provides:

“A seaman injured in the course of employment or, if the seaman dies from the injury, the personal representative of the seaman may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer. Laws of the United States regulating recovery for personal injury to, or death of, a railway employee apply to an action under this section.”

Under the Jones Act, a seaman has a cause of action if an employer’s negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing an injury. Gavagan v. U.S., 955 F.2d 1016, 1018 (5th Cir. 1992). A Jones Act employer has a duty to provide a reasonably safe place to work. Daigle v. L & L Marine Trans. Co., 322 F.Supp.2d 717, 725 (E.D. La. 2004). However, liability does not attach to a Jones Act employer for injuries suffered by its employees absent proof that the injury occurred during the course of employment, that there was negligence on the part of the employer, and that such negligence was the cause, in whole or in part, of the seaman’s injury. Gautreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., 107 F.3d 331, 338 (5th Cir. 1997) (en banc). Any failure of defendant to warn plaintiff of conditions of which he was, or should have been, aware is not negligence on the part of the defendant, and a seaman is obligated under the Jones Act to act with ordinary prudence under the circumstances. Gautreaux, 107 F.3d at 339.

In order to prevail on his Jones Act claim, cases such as Robinson v. Zapata Corp., 664 F.2d 45 (5th Cir. 1981) and Chisholm v. Sabine Towing & Transp., Inc., 679 F.2d 60 (5th Cir. 1982) teach that a plaintiff must establish each of the following elements by a preponderance of the evidence:

(1) At the time of the injury, Plaintiff was acting in the course and scope of his employment as a member of the crew of a vessel in navigation;

(2) The defendant was negligent as claimed; and

(3) Such negligence was the legal cause of Plaintiff’s damages.

B. UNSEAWORTHINESS CLAIMS
Unseaworthiness is not negligent conduct, it is a condition; there must be a showing that the vessel, her equipment, or crew is defective in some way. Usner v. Luckenback Overseas Corp., 400 U.S. 494 (1971). The duty includes supplying an adequate and competent crew for the task at hand. Waldron v. Moore-McCormack Lines, Inc., 386 U.S. 724 (1967). An unsafe method of work can render a vessel unseaworthy. Rogers v. Eagle Offshore Drilling Services, Inc., 764 F.2d 300, 303 (5th Cir. 1985)(citing Luneau v. Penrod Drilling Co., 720 F.2d 625 (5th Cir. 1983)).

A shipowner has an absolute duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. Baker v. Raymond International, Inc., 656 F.2d 173 (5th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 456 U.S. 983 (1982). Although the duty is absolute, it is a duty only to furnish a vessel and appurtenances reasonably fit for their intended use. Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539 (1960). The owner is not obligated to furnish an accident-free ship. Id.

In an action for unseaworthiness, plaintiff’s burden to establish causation is more stringent than under the Jones Act. i. Plaintiff must show:

(1) The condition played a substantial part in bringing about or actually causing the injury; and

(2) Proximate cause, that is, that the injury was either a direct result or a reasonably probable consequence of the act or omission.

C. DO I GET A JURY?

Fed.R.Civ.P. 38 (a) provides that “The right of trial by jury as declared by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution—or as provided by a federal statute—is preserved to the parties inviolate.” However, Fed.R.Civ.P. 38 (e) carves out an exception, providing: “These rules do not create a right to a jury trial on issues in a claim that is an admiralty or maritime claim under Rule 9(h).” ii

If a plaintiff brings a Jones Act claim in federal court and does not designate it as one “in admiralty,” he is entitled to trial by jury. A plaintiff asserting a Jones Act claim in state court also has the right to trial by jury. iii See, 46 U.S.C. § 30104. Trial by jury of “savings to suitors” claims in state court turns upon state law. See, Linton v. Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co., 964 F.2d 1480 (5th Cir. 1992) and Lavergne v. Western Co. of N. Am., 371 So.2d 807 (La. 1979). La. C.C.P. art. 1732(6) formerly provided “savings to suitors” plaintiffs with the option of a jury trial or a bench trial such as plaintiff would enjoy in federal court, but it was repealed in 1999. See, Act 1363 of 1999.

If federal jurisdiction is founded solely upon 28 U.S.C. § 1333 (admiralty and maritime claim jurisdiction), the parties are not entitled to trial by jury. This includes the general maritime law claims for unseaworthiness and for failure to pay maintenance and cure. However, when a Jones Act claim is asserted on the “law” side of federal court and is joined with an unseaworthiness claim or a maintenance and cure claim, as to which there is no independent “law” side jurisdiction, all of the claims may be tried together to a jury. See, Fitzgerald v. United States Lines, 374 U.S. 16 (1963).

i
A seaman’s burden of proving causation in a Jones Act negligence claim has been deemed “slight,” as a seaman must only show that “his employer’s negligence is the cause, in whole or in part, of his injury.” Gautreaux, 107 F.3d at 335; Comeaux v. T.L. James & Co., 702 F.2d 1023 (5th Cir. 1983).
ii
Fed.R.Civ.P. 9 (h)(1) provides: “If a claim for relief is within the admiralty or maritime jurisdiction and also within the court’s subject-matter jurisdiction on some other ground, the pleading may designate the claim as an admiralty or maritime claim for purposes of Rules 14(c), 38(e), and 82 and the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions. A claim cognizable only in the admiralty or maritime jurisdiction is an admiralty or maritime claim for those purposes, whether or not so designated.”
iii
However, the Jones Act defendant does not have a right to a jury trial. See, Rachal v. Ingram Corp., 795 F.2d 1210 (5th Cir. 1986).

This article, The Jones Act, Unseaworthiness, and Jury Trials Article by Richard Martin, first appeared on Lamothe Law Firm.