William Skye worked a lot. A whole lot. Skye worked between 90 and 105 hours per week for 70 to 84 days at a time. Over the course of eight years, Skye’s cardiac condition (initially a benign arrhythmia) worsened. Skye’s cardiologist concluded that Skye’s “continued physical stress related to his job, with long hours and lack of sleep” caused the worsening. By 2008, Skye was diagnosed with left ventricular hypertrophy–a thickening of the heart wall of the left ventricle. According to the cardiologist, Skye’s stress led to hypertension which, in turn, caused the left ventricular hypertrophy.
In 2011, Skye sued Maersk Line for negligence under the Jones Act. He alleged that Maersk failed to provide reasonable working hours, an adequate crew, and adequate rest. Maersk overworked him to the point of fatigue, thus causing physical damage to his heart. A jury agreed and awarded damages of $2,362,299. But because Skye was 75% at fault for his injuries, the district court reduced the award to $590,574.75. Maersk then moved for a directed verdict on the grounds that Skye could not recover under the Jones Act for an injury caused by work-related stress. The district court disagreed and Maersk appealed.
A divided panel from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Maersk. It held that Skye’s work-related stress complaint was not cognizable under the Jones Act. A complaint of physical injury caused by work-related stress is foreclosed by Supreme Court precedent.
The precedent that guided the Eleventh Circuit was a Federal Employers Liability Act (“FELA”) case called Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532 (1994). The Jones Act provides a cause of action for seaman much like FELA provides a cause of action for inured railroad employees. The Jones Act incorporates FELA’s remedial scheme, and FELA case law also applies to the Jones Act. Accordingly, even though Gottshall is a FELA case, the holding and rationale can be applied to Jones Act cases. The Eleventh Circuit summarized the Gottshall holding and rationale as follows:
In Gottshall, the Supreme Court ruled that injuries cause by the long-term effects of work-related stress are not cognizable under [FELA] because they are not caused by any physical impact or fear from the threat of physical impact. … The Supreme Court adopted the zone-of-danger test for injuries not caused by a physical impact; [Plaintiff’s] injuries were compensable only if [Plaintiff] was injured when he was within the zone of danger of a physical impact caused by his employer’s negligence.”
With the Gottshall reasoning in mind, the Eleventh Circuit then disposed of Skye’s claims. Even if Maersk failed to provide reasonable working and rest hours, and even if Skye felt overworked to the point of fatigue, none of that mattered:
As the Supreme Court explained in Gottshall, the “central focus” of [FELA], and the Jones Act by extension, is “on physical perils.” 512 U.S. at 555, 114 S. Ct. at 2410. An arduous work schedule and an irregular sleep schedule are not physical perils. That Skye developed a “physical injury” is no matter; the cause of his injury was work-related stress. See Szymanski, 154 F.3d at 594-95. [The Gottshall Plaintiff] too had physical injuries–weight loss and headaches–but a physical injury is not enough. Gottshall, 512 U.S. at 539, 558, 114 S. Ct. 2402, 2411-12. Compensating Skye for his injury would potentially lead to, in the words of the Supreme Court, “a flood of trivial suits, the possibility of fraudulent claims…and the specter of unlimited and unpredictable liability” because there is no way to predict what effect a stressful work environment–compared to a physical accident such as an exploding boiler–would have on any given employee. See id. at 557, 114 S. Ct. at 2411. Skye’s complaint of a physical injury caused by work-related stress is foreclosed by binding precedent of the Supreme Court, and the judgment in his favor cannot stand as a matter of law. Id. at 558, 114 S. Ct. at 2411-12.
There you have it: no work-related stress Jones Act claims. Still, this likely isn’t the last we will hear about this injury. I would anticipate that Skye would either request reconsideration by an en banc Eleventh Circuit, or he would file a petition with the Supreme Court. Maersk won Skye v. Maersk Line by the slimmest of margins. Out of three judges, one wrote the opinion, one concurred, and one dissented. The concurrence all but asks the Supreme Court to revisit this area of law, noting that “[b]eing required to work 90 and 105 hours per week for 70 or 84 days at a time is hardly being given a safe place to work.” The dissent argued that deference should be given to the jury’s decision that Skye suffered a physical as opposed to an emotional injury. Further, the dissenter “would not read the Jones Act to preclude liability for an employer who makes a seaman work so hard and so continuously that he suffers physical injury in the form of heart disease, heart attack, organ failure, seizure, or stroke.” Clearly, reasonable minds can differ with respect to the compensability of a work-related stress Jones Act claim, especially when there is a physical component to the total injury.