Are “Releases” Of Jones Act Claims Enforceable?

April 26, 2016

Jones Act lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard often get calls from injured offshore and maritime workers after their employer has asked them to sign some kind of “waiver” or “release” or “severance” agreement, usually in exchange for a very small amount of money.

Why do maritime companies do this? The answer is both simple and sad.

Profit is what motivates offshore and maritime companies. Companies make more money if fewer injured seamen seek Jones Act compensation. So, if offshore and maritime workers can be persuaded to sign away their rights before they consult with a maritime attorney, those workers will be less likely to seek compensation–and the companies will make more money.

Should I Sign A Jones Act Release?

The short answer to the question “should I sign a release of Jones Act claims” is an emphatic “no.”

It’s just not a good idea. Signing any kind of a release without consulting an attorney can jeopardize your rights.

If you or a loved one has been injured, and somebody is asking you to sign a release, call us. We’ll discuss your rights, for free and in private. There’s no reason not to call.

I’ve Already Signed Something. Can I Still Seek Compensation?

Unfortunately, most injured offshore and maritime workers aren’t in the best position to make decisions when their employers ask them to sign a release. The workers are in pain, facing an uncertain future, and have bills to pay. They may sign something just so they can make rent.

Later, these injured workers realize they cannot return to work, and that the small amount the company paid is not going to make them whole. At that point, they typically contact the company, and are essentially told “better luck next time.”

A short time later, the offshore oil company, contractor, shipping company, or other maritime employer will often send the dreaded “reduction of force” notice, informing the worker they no longer have a job.

Then the injured maritime worker will start researching on the internet. They will find our offshore injury lawyers, and give us a call, scared they have jeopardized their future.

The good news is that, even if you have already signed something, you may still be able to seek Jones Act compensation.

Federal Law Prohibiting Jones Act Releases

Jones Act releases and waivers of claims are often not enforceable.

Section 5 of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), 45 U.S.C.A. § 55, 10A FCA title 45, § 55, provides that:

“Any contract, rule, regulation, or device whatsoever, the purpose or intent of which shall be to enable any common carrier to exempt itself from any liability created by this chapter, shall to that extent be void: Provided, That in any action brought against any such common carrier under or by virtue of any of the provisions of this chapter, such common carrier may set off therein any sum it has contributed or paid to any insurance, relief benefit, or indemnity that may have been paid to the injured employee or the person entitled thereto on account of the injury or death for which said action was brought.”

Section 5 of FELA applies to injured Jones Act mariners, seamen, and offshore workers. Under Section 5, a “release” of Jones Act claims is typically void and not valid.

The U.S. Supreme Court case Duncan v. Thompson held that even releases executed after an injury are invalid under FELA Section 5. 315 U.S. 1 (1942).

The Court held that if “the purpose or intent” is to enable the employer to “exempt itself from any liability created by [the Jones Act or FELA],” the release is unenforceable.

As the Supreme Court has explained, offshore and maritime workers, like railroad workers, perform dangerous work that protects our national security.  As a result, they are entitled to special protection, and:

“are emphatically the wards of the admiralty; and though not technically incapable of entering into a valid contract, they are treated in the same manner, as courts of equity are accustomed to treat young heirs, dealing with their expectancies, wards with their guardians, and cestuis que trust with their trustees.”

“If there is any undue inequality in the terms, any disproportion in the bargain, any sacrifice of rights on one side, which are not compensated by extraordinary benefits on the other, the judicial interpretation of the transaction, is that the bargain is unjust and unreasonable, that advantage has been taken of the situation of the weaker party, and that protanto the bargain ought to be set aside as inequitable.”

“And on every occasion the court expects to be satisfied, that the compensation for every material alteration is entirely adequate to the diminution of right or privilege on the part of the seamen.”

Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co., 317 U.S. 239 (1942).

Settlement vs. Release

While Section 5 prohibits “releases” of Jones Act and FELA claims, it does not prohibit good faith settlement agreements.

In other words, there is a difference between somebody who has been asked to waive their rights and somebody who has willingly settled a Jones Act claim. Somebody who has willingly settled their Jones Act claim cannot, of course, bring the claim again.

For that reason, companies seeking to deny Jones Act compensation will often try to portray a “release” as a “settlement.”

This can create a sticky, gray area when injured offshore workers or injured sailors sign something after an injury in exchange for compensation. Thankfully, many courts interpreting such agreements have found in favor of the injured worker. But this is still dangerous territory for an injured worker.

Again, the rule of thumb for an injured seaman or injured maritime crewman is:

Do Not Sign Anything Until You Consult With A Jones Act Lawyer

That means:

  • Don’t sign a “release.”
  • Don’t sign a “severance agreement.”
  • Don’t sign a “settlement” agreement.
  • Don’t sign an “agreement to accept benefits.”
  • Don’t sign a witness statement.
  • Don’t sign an incident report.

Maritime Personal Injury Lawyers At Morrow & Sheppard Can Help

Our Houston Jones Act attorneys are in the business of helping injured seamen learn about their rights, and seek just compensation.

We have membership in the Maritime Law Association, and as former partners at prestigious defense firms, we know how companies handle and evaluate personal injury lawsuits.

Please call us now at 1-800-489-2216 or fill out our online consultation form. You are entitled to a free and strictly confidential consultation with one of our maritime injury lawyers.

If you decide to hire us, we work on contingency fee, which means you only pay if we win.

Get a Free Case Review by Calling Morrow & Sheppard Now.

We’re available 24/7.

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