Does Workers’ Compensation Apply to River Barge Accidents?
Maritime law does not just deal with ships at sea. Every year, more than 37 tons of commodities travel on barges down the St. Louis region’s rivers. The same rules and laws that govern ocean liners apply to river traffic too.
The men and women who work on these vessels do difficult and sometimes dangerous jobs. If they get hurt in a river barge accident, they deserve compensation, just like in any other workplace incident.
But for people who work on boats—whether they are barges, freighters, tankers, tugboats, towboats, fishing boats, cruise ships, or any commercial vessel—normal worker’s compensation rules do not apply. Instead, they are covered by the Jones Act. A federal mandate created in the 1920s, the Act helps people who work on America’s waterways get compensation.
Worker’s comp typically pays for medical care and lost wages, and so does the Jones Act. But in addition, the Jones Act handles onboard accidents and illnesses similar to personal injury cases. It gives maritime workers the ability to sue their employer and the owner of the vessel in cases of negligence or an unsafe work environment.
Who is Covered by the Jones Act?
The Jones Act specifically covers seamen who work aboard vessels that are “in navigation”. That means that the vessel is either traveling a waterway or is capable of doing so. For example, it covers workers on a vessel temporarily tied to a dock, but not one that is in drydock. In the St. Louis region, all of the people who work on the barges and commercial boats in navigation that we see on the Mississippi River and Missouri River are covered by the Jones Act if they get hurt.
The act does not apply, however, to workers on the riverboat casinos attached to the shore, as they are not navigable. It also does not cover longshoremen, harbor workers, dock workers, or those on oil rigs fixed to the ocean floor.
Most employees onboard navigable vessels are classified as seamen, as long as they spend at least 30% of their time on a vessel. If a seaman is injured in a river barge accident, they should seek the advice of an attorney with experience in the Jones Act to be sure to get the compensation that they deserve.
How the Jones Act Protects Maritime Employees
The Jones Act ensures that seamen have three basic rights when injured in a river barge accident or on any other navigable vessel.
1. The right to “cure and maintenance.”
This part of the Jones Act guarantees that an employer will compensate a seaman for their medical expenses and living expenses while recovering. It does not matter whether or not the employer is at fault for the accident.
The “cure” portion includes any emergency care and medical expenses. “Maintenance” refers to rent or mortgage payments, food, and other living expenses. Both maintenance and cure payment end when the seaman has reached “maximum medical improvement.” This does not necessarily mean that the seaman is fully recovered from the incident. Instead, it is when the seaman’s treatment stops showing improvement in his or her condition.
This is an important distinction since it does not cover long-term care for debilitating injuries. It is also worth noting that typical maintenance payments can be as low as $15, and rarely go over $40 per day.
2. The right to sue an employer for negligence.
The fact that cure and maintenance payments can fail to fully compensate a seaman is balanced out by the ability to file a lawsuit when there is negligence. Employers on navigable vessels owe their employees a safe place to work. They can be liable for safety hazards, as well as the negligence of the seaman’s captain or any co-workers onboard.
River barge accidents and injuries caused by some of these unsafe conditions can count as negligence:
- Inadequate training
- Broken or poorly maintained equipment
- Slipping hazards due to oil or grease on the deck or stairs
- Failure to follow safety training and protocols
The Jones Act is an employee-friendly rule. While it is up to the seaman to prove negligence on the part of their employer, the burden of proof is often fairly easy to establish. Even if an employer’s action (or inaction) was only 1% to blame for an injury, the seaman can be entitled to damages.
3. The right to sue the owner of the vessel for unseaworthiness.
In maritime law, unseaworthiness does not mean that a boat is unable to navigate waterways. Instead, like negligence, it means that the vessel does not provide the seaman with a suitable place and adequate equipment and safety to perform the job.
When the owner of the vessel is not the same person or entity as the employer, they too may be sued by an injured seaman.
Receiving Compensation Under the Jones Act
- Emergency medical care
- Hospital and surgery bills
- Doctor visits
- Rehabilitation and physical therapy
- Lost current and future wages
In addition, a seaman can seek damages for pain and suffering and mental anguish caused by the incident.
Although the burden of proof is low for Jones Act cases, collecting evidence, making the claim, and filing the lawsuit is complicated and time-consuming. Taking on this burden while also trying to recover from an accident is too much for most people. Having the legal representation of an experienced lawyer is a definite advantage.
Things You Should Do After a River Barge Accident
Report the incident. Seamen should alert their supervisor and employer as soon as they are injured. Just like with any personal injury case, documentation of the incident is valuable in proving what happened.
Get medical help. Maritime companies often have their own physicians or clinics, but that does not mean they are the only option. While seamen should get immediate help in an emergency, they also have the right to see their own doctor. It is highly recommended that they consult their own physician to assess the full extent of their injuries and the treatment necessary for a full recovery.
Talk to an attorney. Even if a case seems simple, the average person might be unsure if they are getting all they need from a settlement. Just like working with insurance companies after a car accident, the process is complicated and often confusing.
Be mindful of the statute of limitations. The Jones Act allows a seaman to file a claim or bring a suit in the three years following an accident. An attorney can make sure that evidence is gathered in time to meet the deadline.
River barge work is grueling and sometimes dangerous. Hazards with the chance of serious injury are part of the job on a commercial vessel. Luckily, the Jones Act was created with seamen in mind.
If the unthinkable happens onboard, call Hipskind & McAninch. We will work with you to get compensation under the Jones Act for your injuries.