The federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, encompassing Florida, Georgia and Alabama, has held that the Jones Act (46 U.S.C § 30104) does not provide a cause of action for a seaman who claims to have suffered injuries as a result of work-related stress.
In Skye v. Maersk Line Ltd., Corp, 751 F. 3d. 1262 (11th Cir. 2014), the plaintiff, William Skye was employed as a chief mate of a commercial vessel. In his complaint, Skye alleged that his employer, Maersk, was negligent when it failed to provide him with reasonable working hours and instead “overworked [him] to the point of fatigue.” He alleged that these working conditions led to “physical damage to [his] heart.” At trial, Skye offered medical evidence that he developed a heart condition, caused by the extreme working conditions.
At the conclusion of trial, Maersk moved for a directed verdict, arguing that, under the Jones Act, Skye could not recover damages for an injury caused by work-related stress. The district court denied the motion. The jury then found that Maersk was liable under the Jones Act and Skye was awarded over $2.3 million, which the District Court reduced to $590,574.75, based on Skye’s contributory negligence.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit reversed in favor of Maersk, relying heavily on Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532 (1994). In Gottshall, the United States Supreme Court ruled that injuries caused by the long-term effects of work-related stress are not cognizable under the Federal Employees Liability Act (“FELA”) because they are not caused by any physical impact or fear from the threat of physical impact. The Gottshall plaintiff sued his employer after suffering from physical injuries he claimed were the result of working 12 to 15-hour shifts for weeks at a time. The Supreme Court adopted the “zone of danger test” for injuries not caused by physical impact, meaning that a worker’s injury is only compensable if he or she is injured when within the zone of danger of a physical impact caused by the employer’s negligence. The Supreme Court explained that the central focus of the FELA, and therefore the Jones Act which incorporates much of the FELA, is on “physical perils.”
The Eleventh Circuit held that even though Skye developed a physical injury, the cause of the injury was work-related stress and, relying on Gottshall, concluded that compensating Skye for his injury would potentially lead to, “a flood of trivial suits, the possibility of fraudulent claims…and the specter of unlimited liability” because there is no way to predict the stressful nature of a work environment.
The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, encompassing California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and several other western states, has not yet decided a case on this issue.