The Jones Act is a federal law that, among other things, provides an avenue for relief to seamen who are injured in the course of their employment. Under a specific provision of this law, the injured seaman (or, in case of death, his or her personal representative) has the right to bring a civil lawsuit for damages against his or her employer. In such a lawsuit, this law also specifically provides that the plaintiff has the right to a trial by jury.
What Happens When the Employer is the United States?
Under a doctrine known as sovereign immunity, governments (federal, state and local) are immune from lawsuits in many circumstances. An exception is made under federal law for lawsuits by injured seamen where the employer is the government (or its agent). In such cases, governmental immunity is waived.
In these types of cases, involving injuries to seamen employed by the federal government, or its agent, the Suits in Admiralty Act comes into play. Under this Act, a civil lawsuit can be brought against the United States (or a federally-owned corporation) by an injured seaman if the lawsuit could otherwise have been brought if the vessel had been privately owned or operated, if the cargo had been privately owned or possessed, or if a private person or property had been involved.
Importantly, under this provision of the Suits in Admiralty Act, the jury trial right is absent. The law specifically provides that in cases brought against the government or its agent, claims against the United States (or federally-owned corporations) will be tried without a jury.
Example: Jones v. United States
Last August, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided a case that involved the a civil lawsuit by an injured seamen asserting claims against United States. In this case, Jones v. United States, the plaintiff was an engineer who worked aboard a boat owned by the United States. The plaintiff fell while on duty and sustained injury to his arm. He alleged that grease on the deck caused him to slip and become injured and sued the United States for negligence under the Jones Act (among other claims). The district court granted summary judgment against him because he had no evidence that grease caused his fall. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, upholding the decision of the district court.
The fact that the case was a non-jury case was an important factor discussed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in its decision. The court noted that since the case was a non-jury case, the district court had more discretion to consider what weight would be given to the evidence than it would have had if the matter had been one to be decided by a jury. This is because, in the context of a motion for summary judgment in a non-jury case, the district court had limited discretion to determine whether the same evidence, if presented before it on the summary judgment motion or at trial, would lead to a different result.
For more information about claims under the Jones Act or the application of the Suits in Admiralty Act, contact the maritime lawyers at the Kolodny Law Firm.