What happens when sailors get sick? Do they have any right to compensation for their time and expenses? If so, what would they need to do to claim their recovery?
These became important questions when the news broke that the coronavirus had made its way to sea. In early February, USA Today reported that Taiwan had blocked a cruise ship from making its scheduled port call. This was because three of the people aboard tested positive for coronavirus. That refusal meant the crew of 1,820 remained in proximity with the ship’s 1,871 passengers. Meanwhile, 30 crew members claimed they had shown symptoms of the virus.
Occupational illness and maritime law
American sailors who find themselves in similar situations may have a right to recovery. But their claims may be more complex than if they had contracted a disease while working in another industry. The reason is that sailors and other crew are covered under maritime law, not workers’ compensation.
The good news is that maritime law offers three possible paths for sailors to recover from their illness:
- The Jones Act. If a sailor can show that his or her employer was somehow negligent—and that their negligence led to the illness—the sailor may have a claim under the Jones Act. Notably, the fault needn’t lie entirely with the employer. The sailor need only show that the employer’s negligence played any part.
- Unseaworthiness. A ship’s owner must ensure the safety and seaworthiness of the ship. Even if a sailor can’t prove negligence, he or she may be able to show that the ship’s unseaworthiness contributed to the illness. This is less likely to happen in a case involving an airborne pathogen like the coronavirus. But it’s an important thing to remember if your exposure to harmful chemicals leads to disease.
- Maintenance and cure. Ships and sailors are governed not only by the Jones Act and other laws, but by the whole body of rulings that set precedents for ships, seamen and their rules and rights. These collected rulings are known as “maritime common law,” and they grant crew injured in their duties a right to maintenance and cure. Here, “maintenance” refers to living expenses like rent, and “cure” refers to medical expenses.
To understand which, if any, of these paths is most likely to lead you to fair compensation, you need a solid understanding of maritime law.
Protect yourself from injury and illness
As a sailor, you spend long days in enclosed spaces. There’s not much room to hide from your co-workers’ coughs or those of any passengers aboard your vessel. The reality is that you may not be able to escape any virus or other germ that makes its way aboard your ship.
However, you can protect yourself from the worst outcomes by taking key steps to uphold your rights. Even if you contract a serious illness aboard your ship, you needn’t let it cripple your finances. You can seek the recovery you deserve.