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Damages in unseaworthiness actions

When most Louisiana workers are injured on the job, they can receive benefits through the state's workers' compensation system. The benefits should cover their medical expenses and lost wages during the time they are unable to return to work. Workers' compensation is a no-fault system, so the injured workers don't have to prove that their employer did anything wrong; they just have to show that they were injured in the course of their employment.

The situation is different for Louisiana's many maritime workers, who are covered under a different system. Under the rules for maritime law, set forth in the Jones Act, maritime workers who are injured on the job generally must argue that their employer was negligent in some way. Maritime employers have a duty to provide a seaworthy vessel to their employees. One way for an injured maritime worker can recover benefits is to argue that the vessel was "unseaworthy."

If the injured worker succeeds in showing that the employer violated its duty of seaworthiness, the worker can recover compensation for damages, including medical expenses and lost wages. In the case of a fatal accident, the worker's family members may recover compensation for their damages.

While it didn't get a lot of press attention at the time, the Supreme Court of the United States recently ruled that the injured or their families generally cannot recover punitive damages in an unseaworthiness claim. Punitive damages are meant to serve as a penalty for bad behavior, and are sometimes awarded in cases where the court finds the defendant acted not just carelessly, but willfully.

While injury claims under maritime law have many similarities to claims under terrestrial personal injury law, they have important differences. Injured maritime workers and their families should seek out help from an attorney with experience in maritime and admiralty law.

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