How the “savings to suitors” clause works

Frank S. Clowney III

Usually, when an employee seeks compensation for injury while on the job, filing a negligence suit either with attorney representation or pro se in state court would be the way to proceed. For maritime workers and seaman, however, the blend of federal and state jurisdiction makes maritime law much more complicated.

Federal versus state jurisdiction

Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution designates original jurisdiction to the federal courts in all maritime cases. However, because admiralty jurisdiction referred to cases “in rem” or against a vessel, it did not allow a common law right to jury trial to sailors who wished to pursue a claim “ad personum” or against a person such as his employer.

Federal law added the saving to suitors clause so that seamen could proceed with a case in state court. The clause of 28 USCS §1333 states “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of (1) Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.”

Recovering damages for maritime workers

Many seamen operating out of San Diego work on tankers, freighters, pleasure and cruise ships as well as fishing vessels. Marine transportation workers face unique worksite challenges that put them at heightened risk to multiple chemical and biological hazards as well as slippery surfaces, heavy lifting, steep ladders and severe weather.

Seamen suffer high rates of injury, illness, workplace violence and drownings. From 2011 to 2017, fatal injuries to marine transportation workers was almost six times the rate for all U.S. workers. Months-long assignments with infrequent shore leave can lead to delayed access to medical care as well.

When a sailor files a personal injury suit against an individual such as his employer or supervisor, he can seek to recover damages for injuries suffered on the job. If negligence by the employer can be proven, the injured seaman can recover damages for medical bills, lost earnings and pain and suffering. But it can be a challenge to understand which will render the best settlement, filing in state or federal court.

Because maritime employers do not have to provide workers’ compensation, an injured seaman may want to pursue a lawsuit to recover damages in federal court under the Jones act or the Seamen’s Act. Having a discussion with an experienced maritime attorney on the best course of action to take to take is an essential first step.