I have used a local diesel mechanic for various projects on my boat for the past three or four years. Two months ago, he broke his leg in a freak accident while working aboard my boat. It was a serious break but I have stayed in touch with him and he seems to be recovering without any complications. We had a friendly relationship though, so I was pretty surprised when I received a letter from the mechanic’s lawyer demanding that I pay his medical bills and an additional amount for “pain and suffering.” The attorney said that I have a legal obligation to pay since the accident occurred on my “premises” while the mechanic was working for me, and he wants my insurance policy information so he can “handle this” through my insurance company. This really bothers me because the accident was clearly the mechanic’s fault and I don’t think he should be paid by me or by my insurance company. Does he have a legal claim in this case? What are my rights?
Before we address the legal issues, I need to advise our reader to tender this claim to his insurance company. “Tendering” a claim does NOT mean that he should share his insurance information with the mechanic’s lawyer. Instead, “tendering” a claim means turning it over to his insurance company and allowing them to investigate the facts of the claim. We may be required to exchange insurance information after a car wreck, but that requirement does not extend to boat accidents. In fact, the injured party and his attorney have no legal right to know the limits of your liability insurance, or even whether you are insured at all, unless they have filed a lawsuit.
Our reader’s insurance company will investigate the claim, and they will of course appoint legal counsel if necessary. They may or may not determine that our reader is liable for the accident, but this is why we have insurance. With the insurance discussion behind us, let’s take a look at the legal issues that are presented here.
We can make a few observations right away in this case based upon the language of the demand letter from the mechanic’s attorney. His reference to our reader’s “premises” and to the mechanic “working for” our reader infer that a boat owner may be automatically liable for any injuries suffered aboard a boat, and that anyone who performs work on a boat is automatically an employee entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Both of these assumptions are wrong.
Our reader and his mechanic have a relationship that goes back a few years, but the mechanic works on many other boats as an independent contractor and is clearly not our reader’s employee. The mechanic might be deemed an employee of the vessel if he were permanently assigned to that vessel as a paid crewmember, but in that case his injuries would be evaluated under a federal statute known as the Jones Act which protects injured maritime workers, rather than being evaluated under state workers’ compensation laws.
We don’t have the time or space in this article to discuss the Jones Act other than to conclude that the mechanic is not a professional crewmember and as such the Jones Act is not applicable in this case, and that as an independent contractor aboard the vessel state workers’ comp laws are also inapplicable.
The determination that the mechanic is an independent contractor rather than a regular professional crewmember also avoids the conclusion that our reader is automatically liable simply because he owns the boat. Under general maritime law, vessel owners and operators must provide a seaworthy vessel for the safety of paid crewmembers. This is an extremely high bar, and injuries that arise from the failure to provide a seaworthy vessel often lead to owner liability regardless of other factors relating to the accident. In this context, “seaworthy’ means more than simply keeping the vessel afloat. Courts have extended the definition of seaworthiness to include the condition and configuration of equipment and fixtures aboard the vessel, and even the competence and sobriety of fellow crewmembers. Vessel owners may be liable for injuries that arise from a failure to provide a seaworthy vessel to a paid crewmember, even when the vessel owner is not aboard the vessel and the owner is not otherwise negligent.
Notwithstanding the burdens placed upon vessel owners to provide a safe working environment to paid crewmembers, it is clear from our reader’s question that his mechanic is an independent contractor who was simply doing a job on our reader’s boat. Any legal claim against the boat owner must therefore establish that the owner was negligent, and it will also evaluate whether the mechanic’s injuries may be attributed to his own negligence as our reader contends in his case. Regardless, as noted above, he should start this process by tendering the claim to his insurance company and providing them a complete picture of the accident to aid with their investigation.
David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.
David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.