What you should do if you are a Jones Act seaman who is injured on a vessel? Should you call Morrow & Sheppard’s Jones Act lawyers immediately? This is the story of an injured seaman, “Jones Act James,” who did exactly that, who ended up recovering $8 million to take care of his family, and who still stays in touch with our law firm family to this very day.
This is also the story of how taking shortcuts, failing to follow safety rules, and poor job planning can get workers hurt. Finally, this is the story of how corporate coverups and failing to take responsibility can make things worse for the company—but only if you hire the right maritime lawyers. Injured Jones Act workers need attorneys who treat you like family, who are prepared to put in the work, who go the distance, and who expose the wrongdoing.
Jones Act James Goes To Work
Our client, James, was a relief captain on a tugboat that delivered fuel to vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. Like most offshore and maritime workers in the oil and gas industry, Jones Act James worked rotational hitches on the vessel, meaning he would work “on” the tugboat for a few weeks at a time, return home to east Texas for his days off, then return to the vessel (typically in the Port of Houston) for another “hitch.”
One day, James arrived at the docks for his hitch, along with several deckhands and other crewmembers. James and the other oncoming crewmembers were scheduled to “relieve” half of the crewmembers who were already on the vessel, including the vessel captain. Half of the crewmembers already onboard, including the first mate, were scheduled to stay onboard, along with James and the other newcomers.
Tugboat Crew Fails To Conduct “Handover” To Warn Of Dangers
Unfortunately for James, the captain was in a hurry to get home. Under the Jones Act’s “standard of care,” the captain was required to perform a formal job “handover” on the deck of the vessel, warning Jones Act James and the oncoming crew about any hazards or abnormal operations that were already happening on the vessel. Instead, when James and the others arrived, the captain was waiting on the dock with his duffel bag, ready to high-tail it home. Rather than briefing the oncoming crew, the captain jumped in his truck as quickly as he could, without conducting a formal handover or safety meeting.
When Jones Act James got on the vessel, the first mate (now the acting captain) also failed to conduct a formal “handover” meeting. In fairness to the first mate, the tugboat company’s inadequate polices that existed at the time did not require the first mate to conduct a handover or job briefing.
In any event, instead of conducting a formal handover, the first mate/acting captain said hello to James, and casually told him about the work that was scheduled in the days ahead. The message to Jones Act James was that there was nothing unusual happening on the vessel. It was business as usual.
Unfortunately for James, that was not the case.
The Hidden Danger On The Tugboat That Injured Jones Act James
Jones Act James’s first shift or “watch” was not supposed to start until the middle of the night, several hours after he boarded the vessel. James did what he was supposed to do. He went up an internal stairwell, to his living quarters, and went to sleep.
A few hours later, James woke up for his shift, on time and ready to go. He walked toward the port side of the vessel, where a different stairwell led to a kitchenette, the same place James had always gone to grab his morning coffee.
Jones Act James took his first step down the stairs to the kitchenette to grab his coffee. It was still dark, and the company had not installed proper lighting on the stairs. This was a hazard in and of itself, but it was not what injured James. On this day, what Jones Act James didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, is that someone on the vessel had literally removed the stairs. As it turned out, the vessel captain had ordered the stairs removed for painting, had failed to put up caution tape to keep people out of the area, and had failed to disclose the danger to James and the oncoming crew.
James fell several feet to the hard deck below. His skin was cut on the sharp metal spikes intended to hold the stairs that had been removed. Jones Act James sustained a spinal cord injury to his lower back as well as a head injury.
Morrow & Sheppard’s Jones Act Lawyers Help Preserve Evidence, And Make Sure Jones Act James Receives Adequate Medical Care
Jones Act James was initially sent to a medical care provider that was aligned with the company.
James and his wife realized that what was going on was not right, and that James needed to make sure his rights were being preserved. Jones Act James called our maritime lawyers for a free consultation.
We told James there was no obligation to hire us, but that it would be our privilege to help him and his family. We also explained that our firm works on contingency fee, meaning James would not have to pay any legal bills out of his own pocket. Finally, we explained to James and his wife that regardless of whether he hired us, he should consider acting quickly to make sure evidence was preserved, and to make sure that the tugboat company could not minimize his injuries or medical care. Jones Act James and his wife made the decision to hire Morrow & Sheppard.
When Jones Act James hired us, we confirmed that he had the right to choose his own doctors. We also confirmed that the tugboat company would have to pay for any medical care James needed as part of their “maintenance and cure” obligation. We told James and his wife that we would help them coordinate getting the medical bills from any doctors he chose, and that we would help them submit the bills to the tugboat company for payment. We also offered to help him and his family if there were any problems with getting the bills paid. When James and his wife learned this, they felt better and more confident about going to see a spine surgeon, therapist, neuropsychologist, and other medical providers–all of whom were necessary for James to get maximum recovery from his injuries.
Jones Act James ultimately required a fusion surgery on his back/spine. Nearly 50 years old, James would be unable to recover sufficiently to obtain a U.S. Coast guard health card and license enabling him to work offshore again. How were James and his wife going to make ends meet? While “maintenance and cure” should automatically cover medical bills for Jones Act James and most Jones Act workers, it does not automatically cover lost wages. Typically, recovery of lost wages requires proof of negligence. It was time for our maritime lawyers to get to work.
Morrow & Sheppard Proves The Tugboat Company’s Negligence
As our Jones act law firm was helping James with his medical care, we also investigated and proved his negligence case against the company. If we could prove negligence, Jones Act James would be able to recover more than just his medical bills: he would be able to recover pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, past and future lost wages, and several other categories of damages. Potentially millions of dollars were at stake, depending on how much negligence we could prove.
To prove James’s Jones Act case, our firm fronted the costs to hire the best maritime and medical experts from around the company—in this case, Texas, Louisiana, and Wisconsin. We subpoenaed documents from other parties. We secured sworn deposition testimony from several witnesses.
By doing all this, at no out-of-pocket cost to James and his family, our Jones Act lawyers were able to prove James was injured because of several acts of Jones Act negligence and unseaworthiness, including:
- No warning or planning. The Jones Act industry standard of care, and the tugboat company’s own policies (which we obtained through legal document requests), required Jones Act James to be warned about the missing stairs.
- Failure to mark open holes. The company’s policies also required caution tape or a barricade to be erected around the open hole that was left when the stairs were removed. The failure to mark an open hole rendered the vessel “unseaworthy.”
- Inadequate policies and procedures. The tugboat company’s policies, while containing fine print that technically required warning, planning, and barricading, were not very clear, and could not be deciphered without comparing and intertwining several different documents. The company’s enforcement of job planning protocols and safety meeting requirements was also lax. This created an unsafe environment which increased the risk of harm to seamen onboard the tugboat, including Jones Act James.
Going The Extra Mile: Morrow & Sheppard Adds Value To James’s Jones Act Lawsuit By Proving A Cover Up
There is an old saying is that sometimes the cover-up is even worse than the crime. In Jones Act James’s case, just as in other deadly and dangerous incidents involving maritime corporations, there was a cover up.
Here, members of the vessel crew, including the captain, initially admitted fault. Many of these admissions of guilt could be found in the tugboat company’s initial, internal corporate investigation documents, which we eventually obtained through legal process in court.
But despite the company’s own internal findings, when it came time to compensate Jones Act James for his injuries, the story changed. One by one, members of the vessel crew recanted their admissions. A tangled web of excuses and tall tales were created. The company now claimed that the incident was Jones Act James’s fault.
The captain swore under oath that not only had he conducted a formal job handover, he had warned Jones Act James about the missing stairs, and he had actually instructed Jones Act James to put up caution tape to warn others about the hazard. If the captain’s story was true, it was potentially devastating to James’s case.
Luckily, through document requests and discovery in the lawsuit, our maritime injury lawyers uncovered something critical. Something the captain had forgotten about. His own text messages. In one of the text messages, the captain admitted fault, and even apologized for failing to put up caution tape.
Then, several members of the tugboat company’s management attempted to reverse the company’s own investigation findings. They claimed that their investigation findings, completed in the week after the Incident, were based solely on Jones Act James’s version of events. This was, of course, ridiculous. First of all, Jones Act James was injured and in the hospital during the investigation. Second, it goes without saying that no Jones Act company investigating an employee’s injuries is going to take the employee’s word for things, and not speak to the other workers who were involved. On cross examination, our maritime attorneys peppered these corporate officials with uncomfortable questions, and attempted to make the company’s officials look foolish for changing their story.
Over the course of 10 depositions of various corporate officials, witnesses, and experts, the Jones Act lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard were able to unravel this coverup. The dates and times of documents, emails, and text messages disproved the timeline of events required for the coverup to be true. The locations of people during supposed meetings which were created as part of the cover up, as well as the substance of the alleged conversations themselves, did not add up.
Days Before Trial, James’s Maritime Back Injury Case Settles For $8 Million
Finally, days before the case was set for trial, with the coverup fully blown and nowhere to hide, the tugboat company and their insurance (P&I Club) settled for $8 million. While James wishes the accident had never happened, at least he can live his life without the added stress of figuring out how to make ends meet. Our maritime injury lawyers are proud to have represented Jones Act James and his family.