Rhode Island Addresses the Scope of a Seaman’s Entitlement to Unearned Wages

In a lengthy decision, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island addressed a number of Jones Act-related issues, ultimately holding:

(1) that the trial justice’s unearned wages jury instruction, which was part of his instructions to the jury with respect to the plaintiff’s claim for maintenance and cure, was erroneous and resulted in prejudice to the defendant; (2) that the trial justice overlooked and misconceived material evidence in the course of granting the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial on his claims for negligence under the Jones Act and breach of the warranty of seaworthiness; and (3) that the trial justice erred in applying Rhode Island’s prejudgment interest statute, rather than following federal maritime law, which would have required the plaintiff to request an instruction whereby the issue of awarding prejudgment interest (vel non) would be submitted to the jury.

As to the unearned wages jury instruction, the court stated (with internal citations omitted):

Our review of the relevant case law make it abundantly clear that the unearned wages instruction given by the trial justice was erroneous.  For vessels like the Persistence, which are “ocean going ships, the rule is said to be that wages are recoverable for the balance of the voyage . . . .”  However, it is possible for a seaman and his or her employer to extend the period of recovery of unearned wages by contract.  Such a contract would have to provide a definite right to employment for a fixed period of time.  Accordingly, “[t]he period as to which unearned wages must be paid is determined by reference to the contractual relationship.  When a seagoing employee has no contractor has a contract with no enforceable term of duration, she only is entitled to unearned wages from the time she becomes unfit for duty to the end of that voyage.  Thus, we hold that Mr. King was only entitled to recover unearned wages as part of his claim for maintenance and cure for either (1) the duration of the voyage on which he was injured (which is not relevant here since the Peristence was docked when Mr. King’s injury occurred); or (2) for the duration of an employment contract between Mr. King and defendant, if there was such a contract.

. . .

We are of the opinion that the trial justice’s jury instruction with respect to unearned wages was given in error in that it was an incomplete and insufficient statement of the law.  The trial  justice stated that, if the jury awarded maintenance and cure, it “should also award . . . unearned wages . . . when [Mr. King] was serving the ship.”  The trial justice was correct that plaintiff was entitled to be compensated under maintenance and cure for the duration of his employment contract; i.e., when “he was serving the ship.”  However, the trial justice failed to explain that plaintiff was “serving the ship” only if he was on a voyage or had an employment contract for a specified duration.  The lack of clarification of the jury instruction with respect to unearned wages illustrates the fact that the trial justice did not “fram[e] the issues in such a way that the instructions reasonably set forth all of the propositions of law . . . .”  It is further our view that, because the unearned wages jury instruction was somewhat ambiguous in the eyes of this Court it is probable that it was even more so for the lay jurors.

King v. Huntress, Inc., — A.3d —- (R.I. 2014)