Contributory Negligence Applied To Seaman Following Orders
A seaman who was injured after following his captain’s orders filed a lawsuit against the company he worked for seeking damages for his injury. In this case, the plaintiff sustained an injury to his ankle after the captain ordered him and another seaman to change a worn-out stern line. According to the plaintiff, they were ordered to change the stern line in 20 mph winds and other dangerous conditions. The seaman stepped on the old stern line once it had been set aside and injured his ankle as a result.
The seaman filed a lawsuit against his employer under The Jones Act and after a two-day bench trial, the court assigned equal blame to the employer for negligently giving the order to repair the stern line and the seaman who failed to watch where he was going. In that case, the seaman would have his damages reduced by 50% or, depending on which court heard the case, be barred from recovery altogether.
Can a seaman be held responsible for following an order?
Generally speaking, no. A seaman cannot be held accountable for any injury they suffer while under orders. This is true even when the seaman recognizes the possible danger. On appeal, it was this very argument that the plaintiff produced. The argument was built on the lawsuit Williams v. Brasea, Inc. However, the appeals court ruled that the findings in Williams v. Brasea, Inc. were non-binding and that, while some courts hold to the standard set forth in Williams, there was no necessity to uphold that principle in this case.
The finding holds sway in cases in which a seaman is injured after carrying out the orders of his captain. If, while under orders, a seaman sustains an injury, they should not be assigned contributory or comparative negligence. However, some courts hold that the doctrine in Williams can only be applied when a seaman is given a specific order—not when a seaman is under a general order, as the defense argued in this case. The appeals court thus ruled that the plaintiff could be assigned half the blame for his own injury.
But in this case, the seaman was given an order to do something specific—fix a stern line. However, the stricture in Williams holds that the routine tasks assigned to seamen are outside of the scope of liability shields. In other words, the seaman must be given specific instructions on how to complete the work in order to be shielded from liability.
In this case, the specific-order standard is quite high. A seaman must be left with no alternative other than to complete the task in a dangerous manner as dictated by a superior officer.
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