FEBRUARY 25, 2011 by Bill Abbott
Most Jones Act claims are premised on the existence of one or more negligent acts on the part of a maritime employer that caused an injury to a seaman. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Jones Act claims may also be based upon the violation of a safety statute. These types of cases invoke a legal principle called “negligence per se.” These types of cases are generally easier to prove since the seaman only needs to show that a safety statue was violated and that his injury was a direct result of the violation. In traditional “negligence” Jones Act claims, the seaman must prove a series of elements such as duty, breach and causation.
In the case of Kernan v. American Dredging Co., 355 US 426 (1958), a seaman lost his life when the tugboat that he was working on caught fire. The fire started when an open-flame kerosene lamp on the deck of the vessel ignited highly flammable vapors that were lying above an accumulation of petroleum products that were spread over the surface of the water. At that time, maintaining a lamp at a height of less than eight feet violated a navigation rule set forth by the Commandant of the United States Coast Guard. The lamp on the tugboat was hung only three feet from the surface of the water, thereby violating the statute.
The defendant in this case argued that the initial purpose or intention of the Coast Guard statute was not designed to protect against ship fires. The court disregarded this argument and found that a “violation of a statute by a Jones Act employer constitutes negligence per se if the violation contributes to the injury, even though the statute was not designed to prevent a specific harm to a seaman.” However, certain laws and statutes have failed to give rise to per se negligence Jones Act claims in subsequent case law.