Proving Negligence and Liability in Offshore Accident Lawsuits

Offshore environments have inherent dangers and operational challenges that aren’t seen on land, so when accidents happen under maritime conditions, they can be catastrophic. Property damage, injuries, or even loss of life are not uncommon, and with the long coastline of Texas, our state sees more maritime incidents than most. When tragedies unfold, establishing negligence and liability is essential in reaching just outcomes for the victims. A Houston offshore accident attorney is the one best able to help you prove negligence and liability.

Negligence in the Offshore Setting

Negligence is a failure to exercise the level of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised under similar circumstances. In the offshore context, this might mean the failure of a vessel owner to maintain equipment properly or a supervisor not ensuring the correct safety protocols are in place.

However, the way in which you’ll go about proving negligence will depend on whether your lawsuit is being brought under Texas law or maritime law, and both are possible, even for injuries suffered at sea. That’s because certain laws, like the Jones Act, only apply to workers who are either full time or who are part-time but spend a minimum of 30% of their time working in the maritime environment.

In standard personal injury law, providing negligence means proving the following:

Standard Personal Injury Law

Duty of Care

Every offshore operation, be it on a drilling platform, a shipping vessel, or an oil rig, has an inherent duty of care towards its employees and any other individuals present on board. The specifics will differ depending on the environment, but the basic duty is to ensure that operations are conducted safely and adequate precautions are taken to prevent accidents. For example, employers are generally obliged to provide all necessary safety equipment, conduct regular maintenance checks, and offer appropriate training to their employees.

The first step in a lawsuit is showing who had a duty of care to the accident victim or victims and establishing what that duty was.

Demonstrating a Breach of Duty

Once the duty of care is established, the next step is to prove that this duty was breached. This might involve showing that equipment was not maintained to industry standards or that employees were being made to work under unsafe conditions. In many cases, expert witnesses play a crucial role here, offering insights into industry practices and standards and illustrating how the defendant failed to meet them. This step is important and foundational: only if you can prove a breach of duty can you establish negligence and liability.

Connecting the Breach to the Injury

Unfortunately, it’s not sufficient just to prove that there was a breach of duty. For a successful negligence claim, there needs to be a clear link between the breach and the resultant harm. If an employer did not maintain equipment properly, but this failure had nothing to do with a victim’s injury or the accident that caused it, that employer can’t be held liable.

This causation element can sometimes be the most challenging to prove, especially if there are multiple factors or parties involved. It’s essential to demonstrate that the injury or damage wouldn’t have occurred but for the defendant’s breach of care, and that this breach of care caused actual harm to the victim.

Distinctive Provisions of the Jones Act

Unlike standard personal injury law, this act is tailored to address the unique challenges and risks maritime workers face. The Jones Act is designed for “seamen.” (“Seamen” is the actual term as used in the act, irrespective of the worker’s gender), and this term covers a wide range of maritime workers, but not all.

For one to be classified as a seaman under this act, they must devote a significant portion of their work on a vessel, typically at least 30% of their working hours. However, not every maritime worker is covered. Individuals working at shipyards, harbors, and marinas, such as longshore workers, usually fall outside the purview of the Jones Act. Instead, they are more likely to be covered by the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act.

Due to the complexities involved in determining a victim’s status, it’s important for those who are injured in a maritime setting to seek skilled legal counsel from a Houston offshore accident attorney. This is the only way to ensure you are categorized correctly and can benefit from the protections you deserve.

Jones Act Claims

Under the Jones Act, injured seamen can pursue two primary types of claims:

  1. Maintenance and Cure: This claim allows seamen to receive compensation for daily living expenses (maintenance) and essential medical costs (cure) after sustaining work-related injuries. An injured seaman will almost always be entitled to these benefits, no matter how they were injured or who was at fault.
  2. Negligence Claims: To pursue this claim, you must be able to prove some fault on the employer’s part. If you do, however, the compensation can be much greater than under maintenance and cure.

Negligence Within the Jones Act

The Jones Act mandates that maritime employers must maintain a safe working environment for their seamen. This includes both providing a safe workspace and ensuring the vessel remains in a reasonably safe condition, and this includes ensuring all employees act safely. Thus, if a captain or fellow crew member acts negligently, leading to an injury, the employer can be held liable.

To succeed in a negligence-based claim, you generally need to demonstrate that:

  • A party (owner, captain, or crew member) associated with the vessel exhibited negligence
  • Such negligence was directly related to the seaman’s injury

Burden of Proof

In contrast to standard negligence cases, the Jones Act allows for a lower threshold for proving negligence. Instead of demonstrating that negligence was the primary factor in an accident or injury, an injured seaman only needs to show that the employer’s negligence, no matter how minor, contributed in some way to the injury.

The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA)

Offshore workers who don’t qualify under the Jones Act might be covered under the LHWCA. This federal statute provides protection to workers injured on the navigable waters of the U.S. or in adjoining areas used in loading, unloading, repairing, or building a vessel. The Jones Act and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act serve different sections of the maritime workforce.

The former provides negligence-based remedies to seamen (those with a significant connection to a vessel), while the latter is essentially a type of workers’ compensation. Although these two acts are intended to be mutually exclusive, a gray area of overlap exists, making it challenging for employers to determine appropriate insurance and for workers to choose the right compensation method.

Why a Houston Offshore Accident Attorney Is So Important

Courts often grapple with the ambiguities of Texas law and the various maritime acts, especially when distinguishing between sea-based and land-based employees, and negligent parties can and do try to use this ambiguity to their advantage to minimize their own liability.

Due to the potential complexities and significant differences in compensation that are available, it’s absolutely essential that you consult a maritime law expert to ensure you are pursuing the legal path that will get you the most compensation. Contact us at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner right away to ​work with skilled maritime attorneys who will ​fight for your rights.