If I’m injured while on a boat, does workers’ compensation law apply to me?

To kick off the New Year, Dannie Joe Eiland filed suit in Hawaii District Court (Eiland v. Smith Maritime LLC et al) against his employers. Eiland, a married father of four with another child on the way, was injured while at work on motor tug M/V Niolo. His injuries resulted in medical expenses, time out of work, and a possible permanent disability that could end his career as a seaman.

In early September 2011, Eiland was at work when he found oil on the Niolo’s deck. He was in the process of cleaning it up in order to prevent the oil from leaking overboard and causing a Coast Guard ‘oil pollution incident’. While performing the cleanup, Eiland slipped on a portion of the boat’s stern called the Pin Table. He fell and sustained a compression fracture to his thoracic spine as well as other non-specified injuries.

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The oil was cooking oil and had come from the boat’s galley (the sea goer’s term for ‘kitchen’). A new galley hand had poured the oil into trash bags and placed them on the rear portion of the tug’s deck for removal. The oil then leaked from the bags and was likely tracked around the deck and Pin Table by other crew members moving around the vessel.

Eiland was examined medically and found unfit for duty. To add insult to his injuries, while the Plaintiff was at home recovering his employers sent a binding arbitration agreement to his home. In the cover letter accompanying the agreement, the Defendants apparently intimated that should Eiland not sign the paperwork agreeing to arbitration, they would cut off all payments and benefits to him and his family, even before he was deemed medically fit to return to his duties.

Eiland’s suit claims that this agreement was put forth to him in bad faith during a time of personal duress. He felt that his rights as an employee were being overlooked and that his employers intentionally sought to further limit his rights with the binding arbitration agreement. Eiland also believes that his employers are liable because unsafe deck conditions and poorly-trained crewmembers contributed to his injuries; he claims that his employers simply did not provide the safety measures that were within their means and, further, were their responsibility.

At the time of injury, Eiland was under long-term, mutually-signed contracts with the Defendants. As a result, he feels entitled to their care and concern through, at minimum, the duration of those contracts. The employers tucked a paragraph in the agreement for binding arbitration that would have cut all moneys and benefits off on March 15th, 2012.

Dannie Joe Eiland cites the Jones Act as a basis for his suit. The Jones Act, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a part of U.S. Maritime Law that allows injured sailors to make claims and collect from their employers for acts of negligence by a vessel’s owner, captain, or other members of the crew. It also ensures the right to a trial by jury.

So, yes: If you are working at sea with a U.S. company, you could be entitled to Worker’s Compensation benefits under the law. We’d love to help you with your workers’ comp case if, like Dannie Jo Eiland, your employer doesn’t see eye to eye with you.

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