Under the Jones Act, a seaman has the right to sue his employer for negligence, and/or the vessel and its owner if he can prove an injury was the result of ‘Negligence’ OR ‘Unseaworthiness.’ The difference between these two theories of liability, and what they mean, is one of the least understood concepts in maritime injury law. An incident on a recent episode of The Deadliest Catch, however, illustrates the two concepts.
WATCH CLIP BELOW
A seaman’s employer has a legal duty to use “reasonable care under the circumstances” to avoid causing him or her injury. An employer (or vessel officer or crew member) does something that a reasonably careful person would not do, or fails to do something that which a reasonably careful person would do is negligent.
Unseaworthiness is different. It flows from the vessel owners “warranty” to provide it’s seamen with a seaworthy vessel. In other words, with a vessel and its crew are reasonably “fit”. If the vessel or any of it’s equipment has a dangerous or defective condition; or if working conditions on the vessel leave the crew exhausted an “unfit” to safely perform their duties the vessel is said to be “unseaworthy”.
In the Deadliest Catch episode, cameras caught a 26 year old crew member asleep at the wheel in crowded seas, after a 14 day “grind” of crab fishing in the Bearing Sea. The crew member’s falling asleep at the wheel was clearly negligent in that a reasonably careful crew member wouldn’t do so; unless he was so exhausted from 14 days and nights of fishing that no one could be expected to stay awake. In that were the case, working conditions on the boat could be said to have made the crew member “unfit” for his assigned duty of standing wheel watch and the vessel would be considered “unseaworthy”.
Watch a clip of the episode below to decide for yourself whether the crew member was negligent, the vessel was unseaworthy or perhaps both could be said to apply.