State vs. Jones Act law

In a recent decision in Alaska, state law trumped the Jones Act law in a maritime injury claim.

On Feb. 6, 2004, Jesse Glover was working for the Alaska Marine Highway System aboard the ferry Tustumena . The ferry’s car deck hatch was opened using a motor as it neared Cordova, Alaska. Glover was on the forecastle deck and fell through the hatch, suffering injuries that required surgery on his feet. Glover claims the ensuing injuries to his head, spine, and feet were “a direct and proximate result of the carelessness and negligence of defendant and the unseaworthiness of the vessel.” ( Glover v. State of Alaska, No. S-12220 )

As a resident of Alaska, Glover brought action for his Jones Act injury claim as well as a declaratory judgment that the applicable state law violates the U.S. and Alaska constitutions. The Alaska superior court granted the state’s motion for summary judgment against Glover on both counts. In general, the party filing such a motion asks for an immediate judgment, asserting there is no issue of fact at hand for the court to decide. Glover also filed an action in Washington state for his injuries. The Washington court determined that it did not have jurisdiction over the matter.

The obstacle to Glover’s claim was a 2003 amendment passed by the Alaska Legislature that revoked the state’s waiver of sovereign immunity for suits by state-employed seamen. The amendment effectively removed a Jones Act cause of action from a state-employed seaman’s list of remedies. The bill SSRq s sponsors said it would provide a uniform equitable remedy for state employees who suffer work-related injuries under a single compensable system.

The decision demonstrates that the Jones Act, although regarded as the cornerstone of the rights of the U.S. mariner, does not necessarily operate without exception.

Although I can respect a state’s desire for uniformity in its labor laws, I’m not pleased when the result effectively strips U.S. seamen of one of their longstanding legal protections.

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