NOVEMBER 30, 2011 by Ogletree Abbott
When Stress Has Physical Results, Jones Act Attorney Showed Grounds For Employer Liability
Darren Fischer worked as a seaman aboard commercial water craft, owned by Midshipping, INC., from 1994 to 2000. Fischer served on “self-unloading” boats, which unload by opening gates, at the bottoms of cargo holds. When the gates are open, the cargo drops onto a conveyor belt. Other conveyor belts transport this cargo to an unloading boom, which drops the cargo onto a dock. Two-person teams (conveyormen and gatemen) operate and maintain the self-unloading system.
In March 2000, Midshipping assigned Fischer to a ship called the “S.S. Bounty.” Fischer served on that ship through June 2000. Although the equipment on the Bounty was in good condition, Fischer was unhappy, he later testified to his Jones Act attorney, that he was assigned to “that ship” and believed that the gateman he had been assigned was “incompetent.” The result, the Jones Act attorney established, was an enormous amount of pressure, as Fischer worried over potential damage to millions of dollars worth of goods.
Details Introduced By Jones Act Attorney Detailed “Awful Stress” In Ship Duties
Eventually, Fischer got a transfer to the “S.S. Bounder,” which Fischer fondly considered to be his “old home,” the Jones Act attorney noted. On his first day on the Bounder, Fischer heard squealing noises from the conveyor rollers for about five hours. Fischer later testified in his deposition to the Jones Act attorney that the job of a conveyorman, generally, is a “stressful one.” His work involved long, difficult hours of tough physical labor and mental stress, showed the Jones Act attorney.
On August 16, 2000, Fischer left the Bounder for a vacation, at about 10 p.m., according to work records produced by the Jones Act attorney. Early the next morning, Fischer suffered a heart attack at his home. Fischer was then 60 years old, and had no known history of heart problems, noted the Jones Act attorney. There were, the Jones Act attorney showed, also some issues of diabetes and ulcers. In June 2001, after unrelated surgeries, Fischer was told that he would be unable to ever go back to work. Four years later, Fischer died as a result of his original heart attack. In failing health before then, Fischer had sought out the advice of a Jones Act attorney. Fischer and the Jones Act attorney had decided to sue Midshipping under the Jones Act, alleging that Fischer’s heart attack had been caused by the stress. Eventually, however, the district court granted the vessel owner’s motion for a summary judgment. The Jones Act attorney then promptly appealed, and later continued the case on behalf of Fisher’s widow.
Jones Act Attorney: Duty Of Vessel Owners May Include Awareness Of Worker’s Physical Limits
Jones Act employers have a duty, observed the Jones Act attorney, to use “reasonable care” in providing employees with a safe place to work. This means, employers also may (“may,” emphasized the Jones Act attorney) be negligent if they assign employees to tasks, which are known to be beyond their physical abilities. Injuries may be covered under the Jones Act, observed the Jones Act attorney by citing other legal cases, even if the injuries are caused by the cumulative effect of incidents. This is especially true, pointed out the Jones Act attorney, when the worker’s in a potential “zone of danger” for physical harm.
Midshipping, on the other hand, answered the Jones Act attorney on appeal (unsuccessfully) that the district court granted its summary judgment, because Fischer’s Jones Act attorney’s claims were “merely” work-related stress claims. The Jones Act attorney answered that the claims were for an actual physical injury. Crucially, the Jones Act attorney didn’t seek recovery for negligent infliction of Fischer’s emotional distress.
The appeals court agreed with the Jones Act attorney, noting that Fischer’s injury was physical (an actual heart attack) and the Jones Act attorney never argued a case of negligent infliction of emotional distress. Heart attacks can become compensable injuries, the Jones Act attorney had convinced the appeals court, as long as the statutory requirements of the Jones Act are met. The key in this case, noted the Jones Act attorney, was because the heart attack occurred, either during or shortly after Fischer’s strenuous physical labor, or because of adverse physical conditions in the workplace.
The Jones Act attorney had successfully emphasized specific cases where physical injuries, including heart attacks, were covered under the Jones Act…especially, if they are negligently caused by physical stress or extraordinary non-physical stress. The Jones Act attorney was willing to concede that an employer breaches no duty by failing to prevent “ordinary” workplace stress. In this case, however, the district court had been wrong in believing that there were never any grounds of recovery for stress that leads to a heart attack. The Jones Act attorney under the facts of this case showed that negligently caused physical stress or extraordinary non-physical stress can be a breach of duty to a seaman.
Before a physical condition becomes life threatening, it’s urgent to get the advice of a Jones Act attorney.