WASHINGTON -- In the sometimes hard heart of the law, there is a soft spot for the imperiled sailor -- "they that go down to the sea in ships," in the lyrical words of the Psalmist. And yet, for all the romanticism, poetry, prayer, and protective legal aid summoned through history for "those in peril on the sea," the law sometimes has left the sailor adrift in fog.
A sailor, the law has seemed to say, is something like Gertrude Stein's rose: a seaman is a seaman is a seaman. Yesterday, the Supreme Court indicated it would try to do better than that, perhaps ending 74 years of doubt about who among America's maritime workers qualifies for the benefits reserved for the sailor.
The doubt has deepened to the point that one legal scholar has remarked that "three men in a tub" would fit within some of the lower courts' definitions of seamen, "and one probably could make a convincing case for Jonah inside the whale."
A new case -- launched from the port of Baltimore four years ago, aboard the cruise ship Galileo -- landed yesterday on the court's decision docket, for a final ruling by next summer. In a brief order, the court agreed to use that case for one more attempt to clarify the so-called Jones Act -- the Merchant Marine Act of 1920.
The case involves a nautical engineer who lost most of the sight in one eye because of a detached retina and then sued for malpractice on a theory that the ship's doctor did not follow the on-board medical manual for that kind of emergency.
A federal appeals court in New York ruled in March that the engineer, Antonios Latsis of Rye, N.Y., deserved a new trial on his claim that he was a Jones Act seaman.
"Latsis's employment," the appeals court said, "did expose him to the perils of the sea -- in fact, his injury was the result of such a peril in the sense that while on board, a seaman is very much reliant upon and in the care of the ship's physician.
"If that physician is unqualified or engages in medical malpractice, it is just as much a peril to the mariner on board as the killer wave, the gale or hurricane, or other dangers of the calling."
The language that the appeals court used was common for tribunals weighing seamen's cases. As a Supreme Court justice once remarked, the law favors sailors because "they are exposed to the perils of the sea with little opportunity to avoid those dangers or to discover and protect themselves from them."
As a result, many courts have given a broad definition to the word "seaman" in the Jones Act. One, for example, gave the act's special protection to a crewman injured in a car crash on the way to his vessel.
Seamen get more protection than almost all other workers who make their living in the maritime industry. Most land-based workers are entitled only to workers' compensation for injuries on the job. But seamen can sue their employers for damages for accidents in their line of work. The verdicts can be considerably more generous than awards for workers' compensation.
Because of that difference, many injured maritime workers' cases start with attempts to claim seaman status. From time to time, the Supreme Court has stepped in to clarify what that status is. But it has not written rules specific enough to keep lower courts from disputing what "seaman" means.
In the new appeal to the court, a cruise shipping line, Chandris Inc., told the justices that "the federal and state courts remain hopelessly confused regarding the extent" of the legal requirements "for a maritime worker to obtain seaman status." Nearly three-fourths of a century of "confusion about the definition of a seaman . . . has culminated," the appeal said, in the case of Antonios Latsis.
When Mr. Latsis' case went to trial, he testified that he was on voyages 72 percent of his time on the job. His boss, however, said it was more like 10 percent. Ultimately, the jury concluded that he did not qualify as a seaman.
The appeals court, however, said the jury had been given too narrow an interpretation of the Jones Act, and thus Mr. Latsis was entitled to a new trial with a more relaxed version of the law put before the jury.
Mr. Latsis suffered his eye injury when the Galileo was two days out of Baltimore, headed for Bermuda. He went to a nurse, who said he should see the ship's doctor at once. The doctor diagnosed the injury as probably a detached retina but told Mr. Latsis to relax until he could see a specialist in Bermuda, the suit contends.
The condition worsened, and ultimately the engineer was hospitalized and had surgery. As a result, he has lost much of the vision in his right eye.
He continued to work for the shipping firm until shortly before he filed his lawsuit.