FEBRUARY 23, 2011 by Bill Abbott
Generally, when a seaman is injured while working aboard a vessel, there are two main types of maritime claims that he may bring against his employer: (1) Jones Act claims for employer negligence, and (2) general maritime claims for unseaworthiness of a vessel. At first glance, it may seem difficult to distinguish between these two types of claims. Many people might think that if a ship is unsafe, the owner of the vessel must have been negligent. However, some Jones Act and maritime claims will not prevail under that argument because it does not take into account the legal distinctions that exist between the two claims under the law.
Maritime claims for negligence that arise under the Jones Act require the plaintiff-seaman to show that the maritime employer failed to use due care or act in a manner that is reasonable under the circumstances, whereas a plaintiff only needs to show that a ship was not seaworthy in order to prove unseaworthiness claims under general maritime law. In effect, Jones Act claims require a slightly higher burden of proof.
For example, a ship owner who failed to inspect his vessel prior to going out to sea could be found negligent if a seaman is injured by a condition that may have been discovered if an inspection was conducted properly before the ship went out to sea. However, if the shipowner conducted a reasonable inspection of the vessel but it was later discovered that the ship had a latent defect that made it unseaworthy, the employer would not be found negligent and a seaman would therefore not have a claim under the Jones Act.
This example may be contrasted with a scenario in which a seaman who was injured due to the unseaworthy condition of a ship may have maritime claims for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law without the need to prove that the shipowner acted in a negligent manner. This distinction was the subject of Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc. 362 US 539 (1960), a personal injury case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1960.