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Jones Act Claims in Texas

Seamen injured on the job are not entitled to file workers’ compensation claims. Under the federal Jones Act, they have the right to sue their employer for personal injury damages. The burden for proving that a defendant’s negligence was the legal cause of a plaintiff’s injuries is lower, however, than it is in a standard personal injury case.

In Vo v. Ho Kim Doan, a Texas court considered a case brought under the Jones Act. The plaintiff worked on board the Larry Vo when shrimp season began in 2006. On the day of the accident, shrimp nets were being pulled up when a rope got stuck in the pulley and broke, causing the turtle head to fall and strike the plaintiff. A turtle head is a device that permits a sea turtle to escape from the shrimp net. The plaintiff lost consciousness and later sued for injuries, including a permanently disfigured finger and various problems with his neck, head, and back.

The boat came to port, and the plaintiff saw a doctor. He was given medication and $500. He sued various Vo family members. Various members of the Vo family testified later that they saw the plaintiff walking normally just a few days after the return of the boat. One of them also testified someone couldn’t survive if the turtle head fell directly on him. The plaintiff’s treating physician later testified that the injuries suffered by the plaintiff were consistent with a heavy object hitting him in the back of the head.

The trial started in 2009. After the defendants’ opening statement, the plaintiff’s attorney moved for a mistrial because the defense attorney had told the jury there was no insurance coverage for the claimed loss. The motion was taken under advisement, and the trial continued. In its verdict, the jury found that no negligence by the defendants caused the plaintiff’s injuries and that although the boat was unseaworthy at the time, this wasn’t the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. They awarded no damages.

However, the jury found that the Vo defendants owed the plaintiff maintenance and cure starting in 2006, and the plaintiff reached maximum cure in 2008. They awarded $21,480 as maintenance and $51,551.40 as cure. They also found that the defendants’ actions in not paying maintenance and cure were willful and arbitrary and showed callous disregard. They also awarded punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The plaintiff once again brought up the motion for mistrial, and the trial court granted it. The case was rescheduled for trial. For unrelated reasons, the plaintiff died. His attorney filed a motion to enter a final judgment and a motion to withdraw the order granting a new trial. The trial court withdrew the order and entered a final judgment based on the jury’s findings. The Vo defendants moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. They appealed.

The defendants argued on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s findings that the plaintiff was hurt in service of the Vos’ vessel. The appellate court noted that the Vos relied on evidence that wasn’t presented to the jury.

The appellate court explained that the jury had heard undisputed evidence that the plaintiff was hit by a turtle head, and an accident report had been filed with the Coast Guard. The court explained that jurors are the sole judges of witness credibility and can choose to disbelieve one witness while believing another. The court ruled that a reasonable juror could find that the plaintiff was hurt by the turtle head. The Vo family also argued the damages were excessive. The court found that $51,551.40 was the amount of the plaintiff’s medical bills, not including an estimate for future surgery, and that therefore the jury’s award was supported. The court also found that the only testimony showing how long the plaintiff was entitled to maintenance was greater than what the jury awarded, so it couldn’t say the evidence didn’t support that finding. For these and other reasons, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

If you are a seaman who was injured while working, the San Antonio maritime accident attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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