In a rather shocking opinion, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has found seamen who develop ailments, including heart disease, cause by work related stress have no claim against their employers under the Jones Act.
The Jones Act provides seamen injured by the negligence of their employers a cause of action to recover money damages to compensate them for pain, suffering, disfigurement and lost wages caused by the injury. This Act was traditionally liberally construed in the favor of injured seamen. The recent case of Skye v. Maersk Line, unfortunately, has restricted the scope of the Jones Act. In that case, a chief mate developed left ventricular hypertrophy (a thickening of the heart wall of the left ventricle) as a direct result of excessive work hours and an erratic sleep schedule caused by the demands of his employer. The seafarer brought a lawsuit in Miami Federal Court arguing his employer caused his heart disease by negligently overworking him to the point of fatigue. The shipping company filed a motion requesting the court dismiss the claim as a matter of law arguing that no such relief in provided by the Jones Act. The trial court denied the motion and a trial was conducted. The jury found the shipping company 25% liable and awarded $2,362,299.00 to the injured seaman. The court reduced the award to $590,574.75 to account for the seaman’s 75% comparative negligence. The employer appealed the decision.
The Eleventh Circuit analyzing the Jones Act and Supreme Court precedent discussing the Federal Employers Liability Act (a companion statute to the Jones Act) concluded seamen are only protected against the negligent conduct of their employers that imminently threatens them with physical impact. Based upon this legal framework, the Eleventh Circuit found injuries caused by work-related stress are not actionable under the Jones Act because an arduous work schedule and irregular sleep schedule are not “physical perils.”
The final paragraph of the Eleventh Circuit’s legal analysis sheds light on the outcome of the case. The court feared that by allowing such claims would “flood [the courts with] trivial suits, the possibility of fraudulent claims… and the specter of unlimited and unpredictable liability.” This case is another example of the contraction of the Eleventh Circuit’s treatment of seamen’s claim. Such is a shame as courts historically viewed it was their duty to vigilantly protect seamen.