Relaxed Standard of Causation Applies to Seaman Claims

In any negligence case, there are two prongs the injured party must meet in order to recover damages for the injuries sustained. The first prong is to prove negligence on the part of the alleged wrongdoer, which is to show that the wrong doer did not act reasonably under the circumstances. Basically, the alleged wrong doer violated a safety rule or safety standard of care.

Seamen have special laws that apply to them when they bring cases for injuries sustained while working aboard a vessel. A crewmember who qualifies as a seaman can assert a claim under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. §30104. The seaman’s employer is responsible for damages if the employer is found negligent, and the negligence is determined to have caused the injuries. The Jones Act contains a very special standard for determining the causation prong. The seaman’s burden of proof under the Jones Act to prove that the negligence caused his injuries has been described as “featherweight”. The employer’s negligence must simply be determined to be a “producing cause” of the injury. This means that in order to win the causation prong, a seaman only has to show that the negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing his injury.

This very relaxed standard of causation, and featherweight burden of proof, was recently questioned by the railroad industry in a case before the Supreme Court of the United States brought by railroad worker under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA). The Supreme Court, in a rare victory for the Plaintiff, recently reaffirmed this relaxed standard of causation in a FELA case, in the decision of CSX Transp., Inc., v. McBride, 2011 WL 2472795 (2011).

The Supreme Court decision in McBride is a major victory for the railroad workers, as well as for seamen. The Jones Act incorporates the FELA, and therefore the same negligence standards as to causation apply in Jones Act case as apply in FELA cases. The railroad argued in McBride that the language in the FELA statute did not support the relaxed standard of causation that is applied in FELA and Jones Act cases. They argued the language meant comparative negligence was applicable in FELA and Jones Act cases. Previously, assumption of risk was applicable and contributory negligence acted as a complete bar to recover in until passage of the Jones Act, which abolished assumption of risk, adopted comparative negligence, and created a negligence cause of action for the negligence of the agents or employees of the employer. Under the Jones Act, medical care providers are determined to be the agents of the employer and therefore the employer of the seaman is responsible for any of the negligence of these medical care providers.

I am pleased to report about the McBride decision by the Supreme Court of the United States. We have seen several unfavorable decisions recently out of the Supreme Court of the United States. It is rare to see a victory for the Plaintiff. I applaud all of the efforts of those who handled the McBride case on behalf of the railroad employees, including the fantastic Amicus Brief that was filed. It was a difficult court to convince to rule in the favor of the employee. It is a major victory for the railroad employees and the seamen.

Seamen are not limited by worker’s compensation. They do get to sue for negligence and recover full tort damages. There are several other causes of action a seaman does have if injured or if the seaman suffers an illness during the course and scope of their employment. Historically, seamen are considered wards of the court, and are entitled to special protections by the court. A seaman who suffers an injury or illness in the course and scope of his employment should immediately consult with a maritime specialist in order to find out all of his or her rights, protections and theories of recovery for the illness or injury.

My firm continues to act as safety advocates for passengers and crewmembers harmed at sea.