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Traumatic Brain Injuries to Commercial Fishermen: Legal Remedies under the Jones Act and General Maritime Law

Commercial fishing is one of the most perilous occupations globally, exposing workers to hazardous conditions that can lead to serious injuries, including traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). The maritime industry has established standards to protect workers from head injuries. Notably, the Jones Act and general maritime law provide avenues for injured fishermen to seek remedies.

Understanding Traumatic Brain Injuries in Commercial Fishing

TBIs occur when an external force injures the brain, often resulting from falls, being struck by objects, or violent shaking. In the context of commercial fishing, these injuries can arise from various scenarios, including:

  • Falls: Slippery decks, rough seas, and unstable ladders can cause fishermen to fall, leading to head injuries.
  • Struck by Objects: Fishing gear, crane hooks, fishing nets, machinery, and cargo can inadvertently strike workers, causing significant trauma.
  • Equipment Accidents: Malfunctioning or improperly maintained equipment can lead to accidents, resulting in head injuries.

The symptoms of TBIs range from mild concussions to severe brain damage, affecting cognitive functions, motor skills, and emotional well-being. The impact on a fisherman’s life can be profound, often resulting in long-term medical care, loss of income, and diminished quality of life.

The Jones Act: Protecting Injured Seamen

The Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is a federal statute that provides protections and rights to seamen who suffer injuries while working. Under the Jones Act, a seaman who sustains a TBI can file a lawsuit against their employer for negligence. To qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act, an individual must:

  1. Be Assigned to a Vessel or Fleet of Vessels: The worker must have a connection to a vessel in navigation or an identifiable fleet of vessels.
  2. Contribute to the Vessel's Mission: The individual’s work must aid in the vessel’s mission or function.
Proving Negligence under the Jones Act

To succeed in a Jones Act claim, the injured fisherman must demonstrate that their employer's negligence played a part in causing the injury. Negligence can include actions such as:

  • Inadequate Training: Failing to provide proper training to handle equipment or safety procedures.
  • Unsafe Working Conditions: Not maintaining a safe environment on the vessel, including unreasonably slippery decks or unsecured cargo.
  • Improper Maintenance: Failing to ensure that equipment and machinery are in proper working order.

The burden of proof under the Jones Act is relatively low. The injured party needs to show that the employer's negligence contributed, even slightly, to the injury. This "featherweight" burden of proof makes it easier for injured seamen to obtain compensation compared to traditional personal injury cases.

General Maritime Law: Additional Protections

Apart from the Jones Act, general maritime law offers further protections to injured fishermen. Two key doctrines under general maritime law are:

  1. Maintenance and Cure

    Maintenance and cure is a doctrine obligating employers to provide for an injured seaman’s basic living expenses (maintenance) and medical care (cure) until they reach maximum medical improvement. This obligation exists regardless of who was at fault for the injury. The aim is to ensure that injured seamen are not left destitute while recovering from their injuries.

  2. Unseaworthiness

    Under the doctrine of unseaworthiness, vessel owners must ensure that their vessels are reasonably fit for their intended purpose and safe for the crew. An unseaworthy condition can include defective equipment, inadequate safety gear, or an insufficiently trained crew. Unlike the Jones Act, an unseaworthiness claim does not require proof of negligence. The injured fisherman only needs to show that the unseaworthy condition contributed to their injury.

Remedies Available to Injured Fishermen

Injured commercial fishermen can pursue several remedies under the Jones Act and general maritime law, including:

  1. Damages for Pain and Suffering: Compensation for physical pain, emotional distress, and diminished quality of life.
  2. Lost Wages and Loss of Earning Capacity: Reimbursement for income lost due to the injury and compensation for future loss of earning potential.
  3. Medical Expenses: Coverage for past and future medical treatments related to the TBI.
  4. Punitive Damages: In cases of willful and wanton failure to pay maintenance and cure, injured fishermen may be awarded punitive damages as a deterrent to egregious behavior.
Contact Us Today for a Free Consultation

Traumatic brain injuries pose significant risks to commercial fishermen, but the legal frameworks of the Jones Act and general maritime law provide robust protections. Injured fishermen can seek compensation through various avenues, ensuring they receive the support needed to recover and maintain their livelihoods. Understanding these legal remedies is crucial for commercial fishermen and their families, offering a path to justice and financial stability in the face of debilitating injuries. Contact us today for a free evaluation of your claim and to discuss your legal options.