Do you know if and when you need to hire a lawyer after being injured working as a tankerman?
For many men and women who work as tankermen, learning that you're not covered by regular worker's compensation laws is a big surprise. Unfortunately, this discovery often happens after a tankerman has been injured and has tried to file a regular worker's compensation claim. Tankermen, like merchant mariners, fall under a type of federal worker's compensation called the Jones Act. This is because tankermen often cross state lines in the course of their jobs, so like railroad workers and commercial sailors, you are protected by federal law.
Many tankermen who contact us do so after having a worker's compensation claim denied by a state, or after their employers have told them they aren't eligible for workers' compensation benefits at all. This is why it is crucial for you to know your rights under the Jones Act so that you can make sure you don't accidentally sign away your rights or let your employer take advantage of you.
When you get hurt, your first thought is how do I get better, and your second thought is how am I going to pay my bills. The Jones Act answers those two questions for you. Under the Jones Act, you have the right to go to any doctor of your choosing and the company must pay for your medical treatment while you recover. The Jones Act also requires your employer to pay your daily living expenses while you recover. This is called maintenance and cure.
Why A Tankerman's Job is Dangerous
Tankermen are exposed to many dangers on the job. Orthopedic injuries, such as back, neck, knee, shoulder, and ankle injuries, are extremely common injuries tankermen experience. Working twelve hour shifts, seven days a week, leads to sleep deprivation. With such a physically-demanding job, sleep deprivation in tankermen is very dangerous. Your brain's cognitive function is impaired and may be responsible for an increase in human error. The risk of human error increases when you apply a sleep-deprived brain to tasks that require both physical and mental exertion, which is most of what you're tasked with as tankerman on a daily basis. Your job may not seem dangerous, but the rigors of your job, combined with fatigue and even exposure to toxic substances on occasion, means your job is dangerous - exposing you to a higher risk of being injured.
In addition to the injuries that could occur due to accidents caused by sleep deprivation, or even by the slippery decks of the vessels on which you're working, there is also a very real and rather common injury that occurs to tankermen called Repetitive Motion Syndrome (RMS). One client we represented had spend days hauling lines, carrying heavy mop and paint buckets, and generally picking up and setting down heavy objects. One morning, in the middle of his hitch, he woke up for his shift, sat on the edge of the bed, leaned over to pick up a sock, and his back went out. Two of his discs herniated in his spine. His story isn't uncommon, either.
Repetitive motion injuries occur when you continuously repeat the same motions time and time again, such as rigging up the equipment used to load cargo or setting lines. You may not have any visible sign of an injury, however these types of injuries can cause permanent damage to your muscles, nerves, ligaments, tendons, and spine if not treated properly. Repetitive motion injuries are hard to spot - one of the most recognizable ways to diagnose that you're developing RMS is when you find your daily tasks more difficult or painful to complete over time. Once you notice an injury, it is important to seek medical treatment as soon as possible to avoid any long term damage and start recovering right away, even if you noticed your injury while picking up a sock. As ridiculous as the moment you felt the injury may be, you're still injured, you were still injured due to your physically-demanding job, and your company is still responsible for making sure you get better.
The Jones Act is a no-fault law. That benefits you because if you'd been hurt working a land-based job with regular worker's compensation, you could have your claim denied if your employer was able to prove that you were responsible for your injuries. Under the Jones Act, it doesn't matter who caused your injuries, you can still file a claim. Often, while on the surface you may think you hurt yourself, the root cause of your injury is a poor or non-existant safety policy. Many safety policies are outdated or don't cover the tasks you're assigned to complete. Another benefit of being protected by the Jones Act is that you can sue for negligence and unseaworthiness as well as for your medical costs and your lost wages. To determine negligence and unseaworthiness, you need to hire safety experts to inspect your vessel, the scene of the accident, and do biomechanics studies to determine if the company policy is unsafe.
Why the Company Isn't on Your Side - And What You Can do About it
Proving your case, hiring experts, making sure you're getting maintenance and cure - all of these are difficult tasks to accomplish, and are made even more difficult when you know the company and its insurance adjusters aren't on your side. Once you're hurt, the company no longer sees you as an asset, but as a liability - they know at the end of the day, they'll be paying you. So in the meantime, they spend a large amount of effort to try to get you to give recorded statements, sign releases, and generally minimize the value of your case and trick you out of your Jones Act rights.
Some companies do the right thing when an employee is injured. However, because Jones Act claims are so valuable, many maritime companies do whatever they can to avoid paying out on these claims. If you think your company is not being honest with you, if you think they're trying to trick you or avoid you, you probably aren't being paranoid. If you don't trust the company, it's probably time to start talking to lawyers. If you try to pursue your case alone, against your company, its insurance adjusters, and its lawyers, you are going to lose every single time.
Calling a lawyer about your case is the smartest thing you can do. Even if it's right after you've been hurt and the company seems to be taking care of you, a good maritime attorney will help you learn your rights, identify if the company is being honest with you, and determine if and when you need to file a lawsuit. A good maritime attorney who has successfully handled Jones Act cases will tell you that, as a tankerman,
- you're entitled to immediate medical attention by a doctor of your choosing,
- continuing medical care while you recover by a doctor of your choosing,
- a daily stipend,
- the right to file Jones Act claim and be compensated for:
- past lost wages - the money you would have made if you hadn't been injured
- future lost wages if your injuries prevent you from returning to your job as a tankerman
- past medical expenses - any medical expenses you had to pay for yourself as you recovered
- future medical expenses - any medical expenses you will need to pay for in the future due to your injuries
- negligence - if the company is found to have been negligent in any way, you can be compensated because they knowingly endangered you
- unseaworthiness - if your vessel is found to be unseaworthy, you can be compensated because the company knowingly put you in an unsafe work environment.
Why it Matters What Attorney You Hire for Your Jones Act Lawsuit
Most lawyers have no idea how to work up, much less win a Jones Act case. It's a very specialized area of the law, and who you hire to protect your rights and represent you may make the difference between a small settlement and a very large settlement. As you research and interview lawyers, it will become apparent who is experienced in maritme law and who obviously isn't.
A good maritime lawyer will help you make ends meet during the lawsuit process; help you get to great, board certified doctors to make sure you get the medical care you need; help negotiate to get your employer to pay for your medical treatment under maintenance and cure; help get your case settled for the amount you deserve as soon as possible. Our experienced attorneys have helped dozens of mariners and tankermen recover from their injuries and collect everything to which they are legally entitled. Not only will we help you win your case, we'll make sure you get all the information you need to protect the value of your case and to protect your financial and professional future.
Even if you aren't sure you need to file a Jones Act lawsuit, if you've been hurt working as a tankerman, give us a call. We'll review your case, help you decide what you need to do, and be there for you if and when you decide you need to file a lawsuit. Contact our attorneys at 877.724.7800 or fill out a contact form on our site.