Jones Act: How Much Fault Makes an Employer Liable for an Accident?

For centuries, injured seamen had one option after an injury at work: maintenance and cure. This maritime law requires no fault to be proven after an offshore accident for a worker to receive compensation. It only requires that a worker sustained their injuries on the vessel they're employed on or while performing the duties of their job.

However, any payment an injured person receives for their injuries is very limited under maintenance and cure. Essentially, if employer negligence caused an offshore worker to sustain life-altering injuries, that employer is only on the hook for some of their costs. So, while it's a start, maintenance and cure ended up being a law that didn't hold vessel owners and operators accountable for the safety of their workers.

In 1920, the United States passed the Jones Act. This law helped cover the inadequacies of maintenance and cure by making negligent employers and vessel owners liable for the full extent and cost of a worker’s injuries. To make a successful Jones Act Claim, a worker has to prove one thing: that the other party could have prevented at least a part of their accident.

How much fault does an employer or vessel own have to be at to be held liable for an accident using the Jones Act? Many people are surprised that only a minimal percentage of fault makes offshore employers liable for accidents.

Featherweight Burden of Causation

If an injured worker needs more compensation than they would receive from maintenance and cure, they only need to prove that their employer is in some way at fault for an accident, even if they’re only to blame for a small percentage of the factors that caused it.

This interpretation of fault is, in some part, thanks to the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA), a law that protects railroad workers. Specifically, FELA has a line that says the following:

“...if defendant’s negligence played a part, no matter how small, in bringing about the injury...”

The Supreme Court has ruled that this line means that any fault on an employer’s part that can be linked to an accident makes them liable for it. This interpretation has also been applied to the Jones Act, making it a law that requires a “featherweight” amount of proof of negligence to be applicable.

For example, if an offshore worker sustains injuries because they didn’t follow the proper steps to do a task safely, they might benefit from having a light burden of proof. In this case, the injured worker could assert that their employer failed to train them to do the task properly yet still expected them to carry it out. Since the employer didn’t train the worker to do their duties safely, that employer would be liable for the injuries as they were responsible for providing the training needed to prevent them.

What Does a Small Burden of Proof Mean for Offshore Workers?

While some criticize featherweight causation as being a concept that places employers at risk of paying for the recklessness of employees, the concept is still very important. Featherweight causation strips negligent and careless companies of the ability to deny that they could have prevented accidents. When safety is wholly placed on an employer, all employees benefit from it.

Often, when big accidents happen, employers try to shift the blame to workers. They do this with the hopes that they can intimidate workers into accepting minuscule compensation for their injuries. Yet, they also know that the corners they cut in the name of profits will likely lead to an accident. In other words, the featherweight burden offshore workers can help them hold employers accountable for negligence, no matter how clever they try to be to escape accountability.

If you’ve sustained injuries while working, call our offshore injury lawyers now at (888) 346-5024.

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