Seaman Denied Recovery for Stress-Related Health Claim

Anyone who has ever worked in the marine industry knows that the physical requirements are demanding and the pressure to perform can be intense.  Regrettably, the nature of the business means that accidents, injuries and property damage are inevitable, no matter how well workers do their jobs.  Usually, the remedies available under the maritime law when such casualties occur are fairly well defined.  However, a recent case out of the U. S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that such remedies are not without limits.

The case of Skye v. Maersk Line involved a claim for money damages by the chief mate of the SEALAND PRIDE for heart disease and deteriorated health which he attributed to the excessive duties and prolonged work hours required of him by his employer.  Skye served on the SEALAND PRIDE for approximately eight years, during which he sometimes worked between 90 and 105 hours a week for 70 to 84 days at a time.  These demands of his job purportedly caused him fatigue, stress and lack of sleep, which resulted in hypertension and eventually disabling heart disease.

Skye sued Maersk Line for negligently imposing unreasonable working conditions that caused his failing health.  While a jury concluded that Skye could recover damages from Maersk Line under these circumstances, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgment and found that Skye was not entitled to any award at all.

In reaching this conclusion, the appeals court noted that not all work related injuries are compensable under the Jones Act, the federal statute that provides a seaman legal recourse against a negligent employer.  It explained that in order to prevail on such a claim, seamen’s injuries must be caused by the “negligent conduct of their employers that threatens them imminently with physical impact.”  The appeals court further determined that a seaman cannot recover for injuries caused only by work related stress because such stress is not a “physical peril.”  It acknowledged that Skye did, in fact, suffer physical harm; but the cause of that harm was not a recognized physical peril for which the employer could be held liable.  Consequently, the court found that Skye had no right of recovery against Maersk.

This important decision was rendered by a divided panel of judges on the 11th Circuit, which may signal further appeals of this claim or lead to more legal challenges in other cases where a maritime worker is injured on the job notwithstanding the absence of some perilous physical cause.

This article first appeared in Work Boat magazine.  It was also posted on September 1, 2014, at Work Boat’s website.