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Jury Finds Overwork of Crew Recoverable Under Jones Act

In Skye v. Maersk Line, 11-21589-CIV-ALTONAGA, a Miami federal court jury decided that extreme, compulsory overwork of a ship's crew member impaired his physical health and amounted to a shipboard condition for which the Jones Act is applicable.

On May 16, the case resulted in a significant jury award against a worldwide cargo shipping company. Although the $2.36 million award was reduced to $590,000 because of comparative negligence, this case of first impression may minimize the distinction between physical and nonphysical injuries established by Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottshall , 512 U.S. 532 (1994).

In Gottshall, the plaintiff, a Conrail employee, watched a fellow worker die of a heart attack while on duty. Gottshall's boss put off seeking medical treatment when the worker was stricken, kept the crew working and left the body at the work site for the rest of the day. Shortly thereafter, Gottshall entered a psychiatric facility. He sued Conrail under the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"), claiming the distress that Conrail's managers put him through caused his illness. Jones Act cases follow the case law interpretations under FELA.

The trial court dismissed the case. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed, finding Gottshall's injuries were "genuine and severe" and could be pursued under FELA's liberal policy for on-the-job injury. The U.S. Supreme Court took a different view. Rejecting the Third Circuit's application of FELA, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a 7-2 court majority that adopted from common law the "zone of danger" test. This test limits relief to employees who are physically injured as the result of emotional stress caused by employer negligence.

In this recent case, William Skye, a chief mate aboard cargo vessels operated by Maersk Lines, had to retire 10 years early after he developed left ventricular hypertrophy. This condition makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood and sharply increases the risk of a heart attack. Skye alleged and proved that his cardiac problem resulted from intentionally being overworked by Maersk, to the point where he slept fewer than six hours a night for four years, and had shifts of almost 16 hours.

Skye sued under the Jones Act, which was enacted to provide a remedy to seamen injured in the course of their duties. The Jones Act gives crew members a remedy for intentionally or negligently caused injuries as well as injuries caused by a vessel's unseaworthy condition. It is the seamen's equivalent of FELA for railway employees, and courts have consistently held that case law under each statute is applicable to the other.

In Skye, Maersk Lines sought summary judgment based in part on the Gottshall distinction between physical and nonphysical injuries. U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga let the case go to the jury. She refused to conclude as a matter of law that Gottshall was dispositive. The judge acknowledged the jury could decide injuries such as heart attacks may result from nonphysical stress and fall within the Gottshall rule.

Altonaga found that the evidence in Skye created a genuine issue of material fact. In testimony, Skye's cardiologist tied his patient's physical ailment directly to his working conditions. According to the plaintiff's case, extreme and persistent sleep deprivation, such as the deprivation Skye suffered, can amount to a physical condition; it is not a mere emotional stresser.

Apparently, the jury was satisfied by the proof that a direct causal relationship existed between Skye's overexertion and his cardiac condition. The jury found that Maersk was negligent and its negligence was the legal cause of Skye's injuries.

This case is currently being fought in post-trial motions. Regardless of what occurs in Skye post trial, it is expected that unless the parties are willing to settle for reasonable amounts, the case will be appealed as it is one potentially opening shipowner liability for physically damaging "overwork" of crewmembers and setting the stage for what the Daily Business Review reports in their article of June 14, 2012 as "discourag[ing] ship owners from the irresponsible practice of maximizing profits without regard for crew well-being even if it jeopardizes health."  

If you are interested in receiving a copy of the jury's verdict in Skye or you have any questions regarding this case,  please feel free to contact me to obtain a copy at either miamipandi@comcast.net or mov@chaloslaw.com.

Comments

  1. What about employers who routinely violate the 12 hour rule? Particularly in the Gulf, that happens more often than it should. Would not be negligent or render the vessel unseaworthy? What about application of the Rule of the Pennsylvania?

    ReplyDelete

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