Captain wins settlement after losing job for reporting safety violations

The message from the federal government is clear: Retaliate against a seaman for reporting a dangerous situation to the U.S. Coast Guard and you can be held accountable.

But the message from a legal expert is also clear: You might want to seek advice from a lawyer before speaking with authorities.

In April, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that St. James Stevedoring Partners LLC settled a claim filed under the Seaman’s Protection Act, agreeing to pay $245,000 to a captain of one of the company’s vessels who was fired after reporting an inoperable engine to the Coast Guard. Boat captains are required to report such incidents to the Coast Guard, and failure to do so can jeopardize a pilot’s license.

“Employees must feel free to exercise their rights under the law without fear of termination or retaliation,” said John M. Hermanson, the regional administrator for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in Dallas. “The Labor Department is committed to vigorously protecting the rights of all workers.”

Located in Convent, La., between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, St. James handles large-volume, bulk cargo for importers and exporters.

St. James suspended the captain after he alerted the Coast Guard about an inoperable starboard engine while working in the Gulf of Mexico last June, according to the Labor Department. He was told not to report problems to the Coast Guard without the company’s approval, according to the investigator.

When he subsequently encountered a similar problem and notified both the company and the Coast Guard, the captain was terminated, allegedly for poor performance.

OSHA found that the company violated the Seaman’s Protection Act, which protects a seaman who makes a complaint to the Coast Guard. OSHA investigated the case under the Whistleblower Protection Program, which requires the agency to keep the plaintiff’s name anonymous.

The settlement included a payment of $245,000 for lost pay, damages and attorney’s fees. St. James was also required to purge all records related to justifications for the captain’s termination and provide neutral job references. St. James declined to comment for this article.

While it appears that the captain managed to save his career, maritime workers should think carefully when confronted with similar situations.

Robert Force, a professor of maritime law at Tulane University Law School, said that the statutes protecting seamen can be difficult to apply and that mariners should consult a lawyer before filing a complaint with the Coast Guard, if possible.

The requirements under the law are very specific, Force said. In addition, there may be both state and federal statutes that apply, and courts can interpret them differently.

Mariners, in fact, may not be protected at all if they failed to take responsible action when confronted with a dangerous situation.

“If a captain believes there is a problem, he is supposed to fix it,” Force said. “If it is not within his capability, then he should report the problem to his superior. If a crewmember finds a safety problem, he should report it to his superior.”

Force has written extensively on maritime law and his book, The Law of Seamen, cites cases in which courts have ruled against seamen who thought they had a valid complaint or had done the right things to protect themselves and their vessels.

“Find some legal help,” Force said, “and follow his advice.”

By Professional Mariner Staff