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Widow seeking more than workers' compensation after husband died

In most situations, when a North Carolina worker contracts a potentially fatal illness through their employment, they file a claim for benefits through the workers' compensation insurance program. In some instances, the victim or surviving family members may believe that state-regulated workers' compensation benefits are not the only possible legal remedy, for various reasons. One woman has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to permit her to sue her husband's former employer for his illness under a federal law known as the Jones Act.

The man died in 2012 after contracting a lung infection believed to have been caused by his exposure to chemicals used in boat maintenance. The man filed a suit against his employer in 2008 after becoming ill. His employer claimed that the man did not meet the definition of a seaman in order to file a suit under the Jones Act. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, for purposes of the federal law, that a seaman was someone who spent 30 percent or more of their job responsibilities in connection with maritime duties.

The man's widow claims that her late husband's job duties did meet the definition of seaman. She alleges that he was either on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay or was employed in performing maintenance of the vessels at the docks. The lower courts across the country appear to be divided in their interpretation of what job duties qualify under the so called 30 percent rule.

It remains to be seen if the court will accept the widow's case. If it does, its eventual decision may provide further clarification about what constitutes a seaman under the Jones Act. North Carolina workers are protected by the workers' compensation insurance program, as was this man. His widow is likely entitled to workers' comp death benefits as a result of the tragedy. The Supreme Court ruling may determine whether she, and others in similar circumstances, has a separate right to sue the man's former employer under applicable federal law.

Source:, "Widow's case questions definition of 'seaman'", , Sept. 27, 2014

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