How Do Pre-existing Conditions Affect Jones Act Claims?

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The Jones Act allows maritime workers to claim benefits and compensation for workplace injuries. When workers are hurt, they expect to receive their benefits fairly. However, they may be shocked when the employer claims they have no liability because of a pre-existing condition.

Don’t let your claim be denied because of a pre-existing condition. Our experienced Houston maritime injury lawyers represent individuals in Jones Act compensation claims. Contact us today to talk about your case.

Jones Act Claims and Pre-Existing Conditions

The Jones Act, 46 USC § 30104, is a United States law that protects individuals working in the maritime industry. When a person is injured on-the-job, while in service of a vessel, the Jones Act may apply. The law allows injured workers to seek comprehensive compensation if they are injured because of negligence or unseaworthiness. The Jones Act is an alternative to a workers’ compensation system, allowing for more extensive damages and benefits.

However, one of the ways that an employer may deflect against a claim is by saying that the victim has a pre-existing condition. If you face this kind of defense, or anticipate that the defense will raise it, you need to know how to address it. Our maritime injury attorneys explain Jones Act claims and how pre-existing conditions may affect them.

What is a pre-existing condition?

A pre-existing condition is a medical problem or condition that was not caused by a work-related injury or accident. It is a health problem that the person had before they were hurt at work.

How can pre-existing conditions be a factor in the Jones Act?

There are two ways that a pre-existing condition may be a factor in a Jones Act claim – first, that the negligence did not cause the injury, and second, that the worker failed to disclose the condition before commencing employment.

Pre-existing condition and causation defenses regarding the Jones Act

Having a pre-existing condition does NOT mean that you are prevented from seeking compensation under the Jones Act. You may still claim compensation. However, you are limited to seeking compensation for new injuries or for a pre-existing condition that is made more serious.

For example, a worker has chronic back pain. They received treatment for the pain which existed before their employment began. Then, they fracture their back at work while in the service of a vessel. The worker can claim compensation under the Jones Act to the extent that their injury is made worse because of negligence. The parties may dispute to what extent the injury is exacerbated by work. It is this additional injury and suffering that may be compensated. The pre-existing condition may reduce the amount of total compensation, but a claim may be brought, nonetheless.

Pre-existing condition and a failure to disclose defense – The McCorpen defense

A pre-existing condition may be raised as a defense to a Jones Act claim in the context of the employee failing to disclose the condition before beginning the job. The employer may say that the medical condition would have prevented the person from commencing work.

Working in the maritime industry may require a pre-employment medical examination and health questionnaire. When an injury occurs, these records may take center stage. The employer may say that there was a lack of disclosure and that it was material. They may say that the failure absolves them of any liability for the victim’s damages.

The defense that the victim failed to disclose a pre-existing medical condition is called the McCorpen defense, named after a case discussing the topic. (McCorpen v. Central Gulf Steamship Corp, discussed infra.)

Fighting Allegations of Pre-Existing Conditions in a Jones Act Claim

If pre-existing conditions may be a question in a Jones Act claim, you can fight back. After all, very few people do not have a medical condition of some kind. It’s important to understand when a pre-existing condition may limit or prevent recovery and when to aggressively fight allegations of a medical condition. Call us today for a consultation about your case.

Medical documentation and expert testimony

Medical documentation, as well as evidence about the accident itself, can be used to refute a pre-existing condition defense. This evidence can show when the medical condition appeared and its severity. Medical experts can explain how the accident caused the injury or worsened an existing condition.

Employment records

Employment records can show what the person disclosed at the time they applied for work. These records can be obtained in the litigation process.

Jones Act Pre-Existing Conditions FAQs

Are pre-existing conditions excluded in the Jones Act?

A victim may receive compensation in a Jones Act claim to the extent that a pre-existing condition is made worse because of employer negligence. However, pre-existing conditions may be excluded if the worker failed to disclose the condition in the application process.

Can I receive Jones Act compensation if I have a pre-existing condition?

It may still be possible to receive Jones Act compensation if you have a pre-existing condition. Treatment for the pre-existing condition is not included, but you may claim compensation to the extent that the medical condition is made worse by the employer’s negligence.

Case Law Discussing the Jones Act and Pre-Existing Conditions

McCorpen v. Central Gulf Steamship Corporation, 396 F.2d 547 (5th Cir. 1968). Benefits may be denied where there is a causal link between the pre-existing injury and the disability incurred in service of the vessel. In the case, a trial verdict was found for the defense because of the worker’s failure to disclose a pre-employment disability.

Wallace Boudreaux v. Transocean Deepwater, Inc., 08-1686 (E.D. La. Dec. 6, 2011). While an employer may offset Jones Act damages to the extent that a pre-existing medical condition was fraudulently concealed in the hiring process, they have no right to affirmative recovery where the seaman does not collect Jones Act damages.

Witbart v. Mandara, Spa (11th Cir. 2021). The elements to prove a McCorpen defense are:

  1. Having a serious medical condition before employment
  2. Failing to disclose it
  3. The employer would not have hired the person had they known
  4. The pre-existing condition is material to the injury sustained while in service of the vessel

At a bench trial, the court resolved conflicting evidence in favor of the employer. The court found that Vaughan v. Atkinson, 369 U.S. 527 (1962) was inapplicable in that it addressed judicial discretion in resolving ambiguities in maintenance and cure disputes rather than in ruling on the credibility of evidence in Jones Act claims.

How our lawyers can help

If you have been injured in maritime work, our experienced lawyers can help. We want you to get the compensation you deserve. Let us evaluate your case, answer any questions about whether a pre-existing condition may play a role in your case, and fight for the compensation you deserve.

We offer honest advice and aggressive legal advocacy for injury victims. Contact us today to talk about your case.

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