The Jones Act is a federal law that provides compensation to injured seaman, offshore workers, and inshore workers who are injured on the job while assigned to a vessel in navigation.
If you have an injury case under the Jones Act, you probably want to know the "formula" for calculating your settlement amount. In fact, this question is probably the most commonly asked questions that my clients ask me during the course of their lawsuit, and even before we begin legal proceedings on their behalf.
I have heard all sorts of different answers to this question. Some lawyers will tell you that you simply add up your medical bills and lost wages, then multiply those numbers by 2 or 3, and the resulting number would be a good range for a settlement. Other lawyers would tell you that you need to "discount" the settlement amount by some percentage of estimated chances of success at trial. And other lawyers would tell you that the best way to determine a fair settlement would be to research what other clients have received in similar cases and use those other cases as guideposts for determining a fair settlement.
I have a different opinion on these matters than other lawyers, and a different way of helping clients understand how to determine a fair settlement for their case. Let me explain.
Why Our Jones Act Settlement Formula is Different
Jones Act cases that go to trial aren't decided by lawyers, clients, or insurance companies. They are decided by juries or judges. When a jury or judge decides the value of a Jones act case, they are given special instructions to follow and questions to answer that tell them exactly what evidence they can and cannot consider, what law guides them in the decision-making process, and what questions must be answered before coming to a verdict amount.
Because judges and juries have all sorts of different backgrounds and opinions on personal injury cases, negligence, and appropriate compensation, the answers to the questions that are asked can vary widely from person to person. This is one reason you must be very careful when comparing a particular verdict to your case, even if your case seems similar.
Another issue to consider is this simple fact: Some lawyers simply have more experience handling and settling Jones Act cases, or taking these cases to Court successfully. I have personally witnessed cases where a particular lawyer settled a Jones Act case for significantly less than I would have recommended. This is yet another reason why it's dangerous to look at other settlements and compare your case to other settlements. The amount of your settlement may in reality have more to do with who your hire as your lawyer than you can appreciate.
A third reason you have to be careful about calculating your case based on someone else's case is that every case is different. Even if you see against against the same company that employed you and it seems like you have the same injury and similar lost wages, your case is different. The witnesses will say and do different things, the negligence evidence will be different, the lawyers defending the company may be different, and the insurance company deciding how much to pay in settlement may be different.
So, although other cases can be somewhat helpful, in my opinion, you should avoid using these types of comparisons or "formulas" in an individual Jones Act case to determine your case value.
A Better Approach to Determining Settlement Values
To me, the best way to determine an appropriate and fair settlement amount is to ask this overarching question: "If my case goes to trial, what would a jury likely do with my case?" That, to me, is the number one consideration that must be determined to figure out a fair and reasonable settlement. Nothing else really matters as much as the answer to this question.
In fact, insurance companies have huge databases of verdicts and settlements at their disposal that they use to keep track of thousands of cases. And a good lawyer will have access to publications that write about settlements in all sorts of cases, including Jones Act cases.
So, obviously, the next question is: "How can you determine what a jury is likely to do with your case?"
In my opinion, unless you have a qualified lawyer with experience investigating, preparing, and settling cases, it is going to be extremely difficult to know with any level of comfort what a jury is likely to do with your case.
How Can a Good Jones Act Lawyer Help Me Understand a Fair Settlement Amount?
Once you've selected the right lawyer for your case, that lawyer should carefully, thoroughly, and painstakingly investigate your case. The particulars of the investigation will vary greatly from case to case, but in general, a competent and thorough investigation will include interviewing witnesses, examining accident reports and witness statements, studying your medical, employment, and financial records, looking at industry safety standards, and, if necessary, taking formal legal steps like depositions and document requests.
Then, you will almost certainly need help from expert consultants like economists (for lost wages), medical doctors (to explain your diagnosis and prognosis), specialists for job training, and maybe even a specialist for future medical cost analysis.
Once your case is thoroughly investigated, and as many facts are known as possible and reasonable, then your lawyer should meet with you and explain what the investigation has revealed and answer any questions you have.
In a Jones Act case, you are entitled to maintenance and cure, unless you lied about a pre-existing medical condition. Your settlement should include all past due and future maintenance and cure.
You are also entitled to lost wages, both past and into the future, pain and suffering, mental anguish, impairment, loss of enjoyment of life, and other elements of financial compensation, but only if you prove negligence or unseaworthiness. A good lawyer will walk you through your chances of success and help you calculate all these figures.
Finally, your case will also be effected by which Judge is in charge of your case and the geographical location of the Court. Simply put, some Judges are more friendly to injured workers and some are less friendly, and some geographic locations have a history of being more or less friendly to the claims of injured people. That's why you have to factor in your judge and jury into the settlement calculation.
Settling Your Jones Act Case the Right Way
I believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to help clients settle their Jones Act case.
The wrong way is to base your decision on someone else's case, or on some "stock formula" of medical bills plus lost wages plus some factor of 2, 3 or 4. This is the lazy way to determine settlements and these approaches may or may not be appropriate for your case.
The right way to obtain a fair and reasonable settlement is to carefully and thoroughly review the facts of your case, to carefully and thoroughly investigate your case, and to analyze the facts of your case through the lawyer's experience and professional judgment. Then, and only then, a competent lawyer will talk with you about the results of his or her investigation, walk you through all the pros and cons, answer any questions you have, and then give you their professional opinion based on the results of the investigation.
The lawyer should not force you to accept a settlement you don't approve. It is your case and your decision. But if you trust your lawyer, you should obviously give great weight to their professional recommendations.