Dirty Jobs Meet the Dangers of the High Seas: Tug Boat Accidents

Sep 26, 2014 - Articles - by Dodson & Hooks, APLC

Merchant mariners hold one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation. There are a reported 23 fatalities per 100,000 workers, often from drowning. These accidents have many causes, including collisions between barges as they are lashed together and the simple difficulties of working on treacherous waters.

A recent example occurred in early February when one tugboat sank after the wake of another vessel caused it to capsize. While the ship went down, all five crew members were thrown overboard. The Coast Guard was dispatched and located four of the five workers, who required treatment for hypothermia. The fifth worker drowned, and was found the next day by search divers.

These dangers associated with this type of work are not unknown. When working on a tugboat, the most dangerous place is the deck. Since a tug boat is essentially a floating factory, in addition to the standard dangers of tripping, falling and injuries associated to the various machines, a worker could slip into the water and drown.

The job completed in this floating factory: pulling other massive vessels through the water. This is a difficult task completed with steel cables and winches. The cables are under massive amounts of strain, and can snap. The tow boat worker often is required to lash groups of these large vessels, called barges, together. This allows a tow boat to tow multiple barges at the same time. When going from barge to barge, the risk of drowning increases. Sometimes crew members must jump barge to barge at night with little light to guide them; sometimes they must jump from barge to barge when the water is turbulent.

Although there are many dangers associated with this job, like any other position employers have a legal duty to provide a certain level of safety. Employers are expected to mitigate the risk of injury by ensuring workers have proper protective gear such as footgear with high traction, safety glasses and personal flotation devices. Employers are also expected to assign enough workers for each shift. This is often a point of contention during tough economic times as employers are trying to cut back on costs. One of the first things to go is often proper staffing.

If safety precautions are not taken or too few employees are working a shift to safely complete a job and an employee is injured, the employer may be held liable. This often rises to a level of negligent behavior and crew members can receive compensation for injuries.

Injuries received in this type of work environment are becoming even more common in Louisiana, as the state has gradually stolen the lucrative tugboat industry from New York. According to the New Yorker, the state has successfully shifted tugboat traffic south because it can offer “cheaper anchorage and offshore oil work.” Unfortunately, within increased traffic comes an increase in Louisiana barge worker injuries.

Liability Under Maritime Law

The Jones Act is a federal law that protects seamen injured due to the negligence of their employer. It was established to hold ship owners liable for the safety and cleanliness of their vessels. Protections are extended to certain “seamen” including:

  • Ship’s carpenter
  • Master and officer
  • Steward
  • Watchman
  • Crane operator on crane barge and deckhand like employee working on a dredge
  • Pilot engaged to pilot the ship
  • Welder

It is important to note that professionals working as scientists, school instructors or students on the vessel are not covered. Additionally, the scope of this law is applicable only to citizens of the United States working for an enterprise engaged in offshore mineral or energy exploration in another nation. It also does not include longshore workers, as they are covered instead under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.

If a seaman receives an injury while at sea, the owner of the vessel is required to provide proper care and medical aid until the ship arrives back at port. The ship owner is further required to ensure the injured worker makes a full recovery.

In order to establish a Jones Act suit, the injury must occur on a navigable vessel. The court defines a “vessel” under the purposes of this act to include any watercraft used as a means of transportation on water. As a result, fixed oil rigs do not qualify but submersible oil rigs that navigate to various sites do.

The injured party must next establish that he was a “seaman” at the time of the injury, as listed above. Once these two elements are satisfied, the worker can go forward with a Jones Act suit.


If covered, the law provides a wide array of remedies to the injured crew member. This includes compensation for past and future medical expenses, lost earning capacity as well as pain and suffering.

In addition, interest is generally allowed on damages from the date of collision, but if payment was already disbursed than interest is accrued based on the date of disbursement. Courts also retain discretion in setting these dates, and can vary from these general practices.

Navigating the waters of a shipping vessel accident suit can be difficult. As a result, it is wise to seek the counsel of an experienced Louisiana barge worker injury attorney to ensure all your legal rights and remedies are protected.

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