Burden of Proof Word CloudWhen an injured seaman brings a Jones Act injury claim against their employer, the burden of proof falls on them as the plaintiff. Burden of proof is a legal concept that refers to the responsibility of a party in a case to prove the truth of their claims or allegations. In other words, it is the obligation of the injured seaman to prove that their employer's negligence caused the accident that resulted in injury. However, compared to other kinds of legal cases, Jones Act claims have a fairly low burden of proof. We explain what that means here.

What Is the Level of Proof in a Legal Case?

The level of proof required varies depending on the type of case. In civil cases, such as personal injury and Jones Act claims, the standard of proof is usually a "preponderance of the evidence," which means that the evidence presented by the plaintiff must be more convincing than the evidence presented by the opposing party. In criminal cases, the standard of proof is usually "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a higher standard than a preponderance of the evidence. Unlike other types of personal injury claims, however, Jones Act claims have what is considered to be a "featherweight" burden of proof. This means that a judge or jury only has to be convinced that the employer's action or lack of action played a role—no matter how small—in causing the plaintiff's injury.

What the Plaintiff Has to Prove in a Jones Act Case

In other kinds of personal injury claims, plaintiffs have to produce evidence that the negligent party's actions were the primary—and in some cases, only—cause of the accident that left them injured. In car accident cases in some states, for example, the other driver must have been more than 50 percent at fault for an accident in order to be held accountable. In addition, the proof presented at trial must clearly outweigh the evidence presented by the defense.

In a Jones Act injury case, however, the seaman can still recover damages even if his own actions played a part in the accident. As long as the employer's negligence contributed to the accident, they can be held accountable. To win a Jones Act claim, a seaman must prove the following:

  • They have seaman status. In Jones Act cases, the plaintiff must also prove that they are a "seaman," which means that they spend a significant amount of time working on a vessel or fleet of vessels. This is important because the Jones Act only applies to seamen and not to other maritime workers.
  • Their employer was negligent. Malfunctioning equipment, poor working conditions, lack of training, and understaffing are examples of acts of employer negligence that could result in an injury accident. For example, if a seaman hurts their knee while carrying a box down a flight of stairs and can prove that they were never trained in how to safely carry heavy loads, they could have a valid Jones Act injury claim.
  • The injury was caused by the employer's negligence. A connection between the accident caused by negligence and the injury will have to be made. For example, if a seaman tripped on a line that was not properly stored and broke their leg, it will have to be proved that the fall caused the leg fracture.

Even though the burden of proof is considered to be "featherweight" in a Jones Act claim, the seaman and his lawyer will still have to produce evidence, such as video footage, co-worker statements, pay stubs, medical records, and photographs, to prove these three elements of the case. It is not always easy to gather this evidence on board a vessel while you are being treated for injuries. The very nature of working on a boat makes these cases difficult to win. Contacting an experienced maritime lawyer who regularly handles Jones Act claims right away will be your best bet.

Paul T. Hofmann
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Focused on personal injury, with an emphasis on maritime, railroad and construction worker tort claims.