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Maritime Casualty

Fifth Circuit: Bystander Damages Not Available to Jones Act Seamen

Fifth Circuit:  Bystander Damages Not Available to Jones Act Seamen

Jones Act Coverage Depends on the Danger Zone

Jones Act seamen are only entitled to damages for emotional distress if they can pass the “zone of danger” test.  This test inquires whether a seaman was “physically impacted or within the zone of potential impact.”  See Naquin v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C., No. 12-31258 (5th Cir. March 10, 2014).  In other words, emotional damages can be available if the seaman suffers physical harm or almost suffers physical harm. 

But What About Watching Someone Else?

In the Naquin case, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed a similar issue:  whether a plaintiff–seaman can receive emotional damages for witnessing physical injury to someone else.

The Naquin plaintiff was injured while operating a shipyard crane.  The crane suddenly failed, causing the boom and crane house to separate from the crane pedestal.  Unfortunately, his co-worker (who was also his cousin’s husband) was crushed by the crane and killed.

At trial, Naquin submitted evidence of his co-worker’s death, which Naquin claimed was relevant to his own damages for emotional distress.  The jury awarded $1 million in emotional distress damages, and the defendant–employer appealed, arguing that emotional damages for the death of a relative are not compensable under the Jones Act.

Fifth Circuit Recognizes Need to Limit Bystander Damages

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit noted that damages for emotional harm caused by an accident could be “potentially limitless.” As such, it recognized the need for limits on who can recover such damages.

The Fifth Circuit first applied the “zone of danger” test, which involves injury or fear of injury to one’s person.  The Court stated, “To award damages for observing a ‘bad sight,’ even one which involves a family member, would contravene the zone of danger test’s intent to compensate for physical dangers.”  Plus, awarding emotional distress damages to witnesses of the injury (or death) of another would be a “major departure from the existing jurisprudence.”

Bystander Damages Not Available Under the Jones Act

The Fifth Circuit ultimately held that “emotional damages resulting purely from another person’s injury, and not a fear of injury to one’s self, are not compensable under the Jones Act.

Jones Act employers should be aware of the classes of damages available—and not available—to employees who are injured while in service of a vessel.  Knowledge of available damages will give employers greater understanding of their total potential exposure in each case.

Allen & Gooch is providing this legal update for informational purposes only. This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion as to any specific facts or circumstances. You should consult your own attorney concerning your particular situation and any specific legal questions you may have.