Compromising positions: Seamen settlements

The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that seamen are “wards of the admiralty” because of the nature of their calling. The court’s role as the seaman’s protector is most often seen in cases involving the settlement of seamen’s personal injury claims, particularly seamen who are not represented by counsel.

The court may set aside a release of legal rights by a seaman that is obtained without fair compensation. The courts have observed that a settlement obtained through duress or with undue inequality in settlement terms is unjust and unenforceable. 

Factors to be considered in the enforcement of a seaman’s release are whether it was executed freely and without duress. The adequacy of the amount paid may be measured against the nature of the seaman’s injury and the extent of disability, if any. 

When an injured seaman signs a release without the benefit of counsel, the court may scrutinize the settlement and investigate whether the seaman had a full understanding of his legal rights and fully understood the consequences of the release. The burden is on the employer to show that it provided the seaman with a full explanation of his rights before he signed the release.

For this reason, it is recommended that the release document include a recitation of the seaman’s rights, including his no-fault right to receive maintenance-and-cure benefits as well as his right to sue his employer for damages based on negligence and unseaworthiness.

The release should also contain a statement that the seaman understands his legal rights, including his right to retain counsel, and is freely giving up such rights.

To meet their burden of explanation, maritime employers often have their attorneys conclude the settlement with the seaman in the presence of a court reporter at which time the attorney provides a full explanation of the legal rights and welcomes questions from the seaman. The seaman then acknowledges “on the record” that he fully understands his rights and freely agrees to release such rights in exchange for the consideration offered.

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