NOTE: This post was authored for the firm by Spencer Sinclair, a Tulane Law School student who spent part of his summer working at King, Krebs & Jurgens. — JAD
Is work-related stress starting to take its toll? If you are a seaman, you better relax—according to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, you have no claim under the Jones Act. In Skye v. Maersk Line, Ltd. Corp, No. 12-16433 (11 Cir. May 15, 2014), the appellate court rejected a seaman’s Jones Act claim for damages related to heart problems allegedly attributable to stress at work.
The chief mate on board the SEALAND PRIDE alleged that he worked tirelessly to perform his arduous duties, regularly working over 90 hours a week for up to 84 days at time. After eight long years on the job, he began to experience headaches, a sore back, and a burning sensation in his chest. His cardiologist diagnosed him with left ventricular hypertrophy, a thickening of the heart wall of the left ventricle. The doctor attributed the condition to continued physical job-related stress with long hours and lack of sleep. A few years later, the chief mate filed a Jones Act claim against his employer alleging that unreasonable working conditions were the cause of the physical damage to his heart. The jury agreed—it awarded the chief mate almost $600,000 after taking into account his own comparative fault.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit was not so sympathetic. Pointedly, the court held that “[t]he Jones Act does not allow a seaman to recover for injuries caused by work-related stress because work-related stress is not a ‘physical peril.’” Relying on the Supreme Court case, Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532 (1994), the court reasoned that for an employer to be liable under the Jones Act, the employee’s injuries must be caused by negligent conduct that threatens imminent physical impact. Indeed, the “central focus” on assigning liability to an employer under the Jones Act is on “physical perils.” A strenuous work schedule and an irregular sleep schedule, the court concluded, are not such perils.
The court, however, was far from unanimous. Of the three judge panel, each offered their own two cents. Judge Fay regretfully concurred with the majority opinion only because he thought the court was bound by the Supreme Court precedent established in Gottshall. Showing signs of sympathy toward the plaintiff, the concurring judge urged the Supreme Court to revisit its decision in Gottshall to find a suitable remedy for workers who have been subjected to “outrageous hours.” In contrast, a dissenting judge denied that Gottshall was dispositive to the outcome of the case. He loosely declared that this case dealt with physical injury, whereas Gottshall dealt with injury from emotional distress.
The Skye decision raises an important issue: should stress-related conditions merit recovery under the Jones Act; or would allowing stress-related claims open the floodgates for trivial suits and fraud? Keep an eye on this one—the Supreme Court may hear the concurring judge’s pleas.