Enacted by Congress in 1984, the Seaman’s Protection Act was “intended to facilitate Coast Guard enforcement of maritime regulations . . . by guaranteeing that, when seamen provide information of dangerous situations to the Coast Guard, they will be free from the “debilitating threat of employment reprisals for publicly asserting company violations” of maritime statutes or regulations”
As originally written, the Act prohibited a vessel owner from discharging or in any manner discriminating against a seaman because the seaman in good faith has reported or is about to report to the U.S. Coast Guard a statutory violation. The Act provided that a seaman who believed he was the subject of such discrimination could bring an action in federal court and seek appropriate relief including restraining actions that Act prohibits, reinstatement of the seaman’s employment and pay, and costs and attorney’s fees.
In 2010 the Act was amended to broaden its protections. Not only is the seaman who reports violations to the U.S. Coast Guard protected, but so are seamen who have refused to perform duties because of reasonable apprehension that performing such duties would result in personal injury, testified in any proceeding brought to enforce a maritime safety law, notified or attempted to notify the vessel owner or Secretary of Transportation or a work related illness or injury, cooperated with or furnished the National Transportation Safety Board with information or accurately reported hours of duty.
The 2010 amendments, however, require that the seaman, instead of proceeding with a lawsuit in federal court, must now pursue his remedy through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and process. 49 U.S.C. 31105. The complainant has several thresholds he must meet to succeed. The person making the claim must first establish that he is a seaman as defined by the courts in the context of the Jones Act. Next, he has to show that his report of an unsafe condition or statutory violation was made in good faith. He only needs to show he reasonably believed that violation occurred, and does not have to prove that a law was broken. Last, he has to show causation, i.e., his termination or retribution by his employer was the consequence of his report.
Pursuant to the OSHA procedures, the complainant may file his complaint with the Secretary of Labor. The Secretary will notify the employer and after due process, a hearing held. If the Secretary finds that the employer was in violation of the SPA it can order the employer to stop the action, reinstate the seaman with pay and privileges previously enjoyed, order payment of compensatory damages, special damages sustained as a result of the discrimination, require the employer to pay litigation costs, attorney fees, and award the seaman punitive damages not to exceed $250,000.
Vessel owners take note. In years past seaman, fearing retaliation and loss of job security, may have kept quiet. However, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion where investigators alleged that concerns voiced by the men on the drill floor that corners were being cut to save time and money at the expense of safety, public consciousness has been revived and we can expect enforcement actions to increase in frequency.