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The Decision to Have a Jury Decide a Jones Act Seaman’s Case Belongs to the Injured Seaman

August 11, 2017 Commercial Fishermen Claims

When bringing a lawsuit dealing with an injured Jones Act seaman claim, much thought must be given to what court system, federal or state, the lawsuit should be filed and whether it is preferable to have a judge or jury decide the facts of the case. Maritime law affords injured seaman several options each of which has its pros and cons. In the case of Bell v. Westbank Fishing LLC, the decision was made to file the seaman’s injury claim in federal court without asking for a jury. Once filed in the federal court, Westbank, the defendant employer, filed formal demand seeking a jury, not the federal judge, decide the facts of the case, if it was liable for the accident, and if so, how much compensation the injured seaman is entitled to receive.

The Injured Seaman Has the Right to Demand a Jury Trial

The injured seaman sought to strike his employer’s jury demand arguing his employer has no legal right to a jury trial because of the way the compliant invoked the federal court’s jurisdiction. The complaint filed by the seaman indicated that the court had jurisdiction by what is known as a federal question. Federal courts have jurisdiction to decide claim brought under a federal statute. The Jones Act, which provides injured seamen a negligence claim against their employers, is a federal statute. The complaint was silent as to any other basis of federal jurisdiction. The employer argued that when jurisdiction is based upon the Jones Act, both the injured seaman and the employer have a right to demand a jury. The employer also argued that it has a Constitutional right to a jury trial under the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution.

The employer’s argument was rejected with the court finding that its interpretation of the law is incorrect. The court’s decision was based upon federal appellate court cases finding that a Jones Act plaintiff can elect a non-jury trial in federal court by either: (1) electing to sue in admiralty; or, (2) invoking federal question jurisdiction and not requesting a jury trial. The law has also been interpreted by the appellate courts that when diversity jurisdiction is lacking, “a seaman is not compelled by the Jones Act to request a jury if he chooses to try his Jones Act claim in a civil action” and that the seaman possesses the right to demand a jury trial not the defendant employer. A federal court has diversity jurisdiction when the plaintiff and defendant(s) reside in different states and the value of the claim is over $75,000. The court commended that there could be no diversity jurisdiction in the case because the injured seaman and the employer reside in the same sate.

Import of this Case

This case highlights the fact that maritime claims are highly specialized and that much consideration must be taken in account when pleading a lawsuit. In addition, the case shows that complaints must be skillfully pleaded to achieve the desired results. If you are a seaman who was injured on the job, the board certified maritime lawyers of Brais Law Firm recommend that you contact a qualified maritime attorney for a consultation and an explanation of your rights.