In recent years, ship owners have increasingly been able to avoid their responsibilities and obligations under the United States laws that are designed to protect seaman, namely the Jones Act enacted by Congress in 1920, and the General Maritime Law which give seaman rights to maintenance and cure as well as claims for unseaworthiness of the vessel. Unseaworthiness is a form of liability without fault. The maritime laws have consistently been interpreted to protect seamen, who historically have been considered the wards of the United States Admiralty Courts.
Ship owners, including cruise ship companies, have fought hard, and spent lots of money, trying to escape their responsibilities under the favorable laws to protect seaman. They have petitioned Congress to repeal the Jones Act, or amend it to lessen the rights of the seamen. They have consistently tried to contract away their obligations, as they do in the context of passenger claims.
In recent years, courts have started to enforce arbitration provisions in a seaman’s employment agreement. Even though a seaman’s employment agreement is a take it or leave it employment agreement, with the seaman having no bargaining rights, and most of the time without any understanding of his legal rights, the courts have allowed ship owners to insert a mandatory arbitration clause into the seaman’s employment agreement.
The Jones Act, enacted in Congress in 1920, which is to be liberally interpreted to benefit seamen, provides for a right to a jury trial. This standard of causation in a negligence case under the Jones Act is very liberal, a seaman only has to prove that his injuries were caused in part by the employer’s negligence. If there was any negligence, no matter how small, which contributed in any way to the seaman’s injury, under the American law, the seaman is entitled to compensation.
Not only has mandatory arbitration provisions in a seaman’s employment contract taken away the seaman’s rights to a jury trial, the ship owners have now been using the employment agreement to take away the seaman’s rights under the Jones Act, putting a mandatory foreign choice of law provision into the employment agreement. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently, in a case involving Norwegian Cruise Lines, enforced the mandatory arbitration clause in the seaman’s employment agreement which also contained a foreign choice of law clause. The court did not accept the argument that since the ship owner was trying to contract away the seaman’s statutory rights under the Jones Act the whole agreement should be stricken as against public policy and thus void. Instead, the court said the arbitration provision was enforceable, and if the seaman could prove at a later date that he was denied his statutory rights, he could come back to court and oppose enforcement of any arbitration award. Obviously, a long and tedious process for a seaman, who has little or no funds to pursue a big shipping company thru long and expensive litigation, especially a cruise ship company.
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