Often times, the United States Coast Guard learns from the crew of a vessel of violations of laws by ship owners. This can result in retaliation by the ship owner/employer against the employee for “whistleblowing.” Whistleblowing is defined as the “disclosure by a person, usually an employee in a government agency or private enterprise, to the public or to those in authority, of mismanagement, corruption, illegality, or some other wrong doing.”
In my many years of being a maritime attorney, I have seen violations of waste disposal laws, violations of safety laws, violations of discrimination laws, just to name a few. Many times, a seaman working on board a vessel is afraid to report these violations to the authorities in fear of losing his or her job, or otherwise receiving a demotion or some other type of retaliation.
The whistleblower protector provisions of the Seaman’s Protection Act, 46 U.S.C. §2114, provide a remedy for a seaman who has been the victim of retaliation for whistleblowing.
A decision by the United States Department of Labor, Office of Administrative Law Judges, in Boston, Massachusetts, illustrates application of this special law. The decision applies the Seaman’s Protection Act to a case involving a seaman, John Loftus, who filed a complaint with the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging that his employer, Horizon Lines, had retaliated against him unlawfully. The unlawful retaliation was allegedly because the seaman had reported violations of safety laws and regulations on the container ship he worked as a master.
The Seaman’s Protection Act specifically makes it unlawful to retaliate against a seaman who engages in the protected activity spelled out in the act. It read as follows:
(1) A person may not discharge or in any manner discriminate against a seaman because–
(A) the seaman in good faith has reported or is about to report to the Coast Guard or other appropriate Federal agency or department that the seaman believes that a violation of a maritime safety law or regulation prescribed under that law or regulation has occurred. 46 U.S.C. §2114(a).
The opinion found a violation of the act, awarding the seaman over a million dollars in damages. In order to be an unlawful retaliation, the employee must prove that he or she was engaging in activity that is protected under the act. Then, the employer must prove that adverse action still would have been taken, despite the seaman’s protected activity. Normally an employer can discharge an employee for any reason because maritime employees are normally employees at will, meaning at the will of the employer. However, this legislation is designed to prevent employers from taking adverse action against the employees for certain protected activity, such as the whistleblowing that was involved in this case. This is to enable seaman to report these type of violation of law to the authorities without fear of retaliation by the employer.
If you are a seaman and believe you have been retaliated against for this type of protected activity, you should contact a maritime attorney to assist you. For over 30 years, our firm has been fighting for the rights of all seamen.