Recent federal maritime injury case underscores jurisdictional issues

There are many potential pitfalls for injured maritime workers in lawsuits, and one recent case illustrates the jurisdictional complexities.

Crewmembers of any type of vessel, from fishing trawlers to ferryboats, face unique occupational hazards. When a worker in the maritime industry is injured, there may be several types of compensation available depending on the nature of the injury and the details of the case.

Jurisdictional issues are one of the many challenges that can come up in maritime injury cases. One recent federal case involving three seamen who suffered from back injuries provides a good example of the complicated jurisdictional issues that have the potential to derail an otherwise viable maritime injury claim.

Plaintiffs tried to sue dual-listed company

After suffering back injuries that required rest and recuperation on land, all three seafarers in the case received maintenance and cure, a form of medical and unemployment benefits that ship crewmembers are entitled to by law. However, each received only three months of wages along with two months of medical expenses.

These were the maintenance and cure benefits the seamen had agreed to in their contracts with their employer. Feeling like their contracts improperly limited their compensation, the men filed a class action suit in federal court, alleging a failure to provide maintenance and cure pursuant to the Jones Act and under general United States maritime law.

The plaintiffs made a key mistake in their filings: they made it clear that they were suing a dual-listed company, which joins distinct corporations in a common economic endeavor while permitting the corporations to maintain separate legal identities. The suit was only against the dual-listed company, and included no other defendants. The district court ruled that nothing about the dual-listed company structure overcame the individual identities of the corporations involved, and that the court did not have jurisdiction to bring the dual-listed company into court. This ruling was affirmed on appeal.

So why sue the dual-listed company rather than the direct contractual employer or its parent company standing alone? By trying to sue the dual-listed company that included their direct employer's parent company along with another corporation, the plaintiffs were hoping to invoke U.S. maritime law (the parent company was a British corporation headquartered in England) and the more extensive maintenance and cure remedies afforded under it. In addition, had their gambit succeeded, they would have opened the potential class in the suit to all employees under the umbrella of the dual-listed company.

Overcome legal obstacles with help from an experienced maritime lawyer

The decision to focus this suit on a dual-listed company was a tactical one, but unfortunately for the injured seaman in the case, it failed. But this case can still be a good lesson to others who face injury in the maritime industry: maritime law is very complex, and you need an experienced maritime lawyer to successfully guide you through the process.

Have you been injured in service to a vessel? If so, ensure that you get the full compensation to which you are entitled and that your case does not succumb to legal roadblocks: get help from an attorney experienced in navigating the murky waters of maritime law.

Keywords: maritime, jurisdiction, maintenance and cure