Skye v. Maersk : Redefining “Physical”

Note by Emily Von Qualen

William Skye, formerly the chief mate on a commercial vessel chartered and operated by Maersk Line, Ltd. (Maersk), suffers from left ventricular hypertrophy, a thickening of his heart wall in his left ventricle.  During his eight years as chief mate aboard the vessel, Skye worked “between 90 and 105 hours per week for 70 or 84 days at a time.”  As part of his duties, he performed physically demanding tasks for long periods of time without regular sleep.  In 2000, he was diagnosed with benign arrhythmia, and in 2008, he began experiencing a burning sensation in his chest in addition to his arrhythmia.  His cardiologist diagnosed him with left ventricular hypertrophy, caused by high blood pressure.  At this time, the cardiologist advised Skye to stop working on the vessel because his work was contributing to his high blood pressure.  In 2011, Skye filed suit against Maersk, alleging that his hypertrophy was caused by the vessel’s working conditions and that the defendant was negligent in not providing “reasonable working hours, an adequate crew, and adequate rest hours.”  During trial, Skye’s cardiologist testified that the most likely cause of the physical damage to his heart was his grueling work schedule and inadequate sleep.  The expert cardiologist explained that in response to overwork and inadequate sleep, the body secretes large amounts of adrenaline, which over time leads to adverse health effects, such as high blood pressure and hypertrophy. Before the jury went to deliberations, Maersk moved for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that based on precedent, Skye could not recover for an injury caused by work-related stress.  The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida sent the jury into deliberation, instructing them to determine whether Skye’s injury had a physical or emotional cause and that if it were purely emotional, whether it arose from being in a zone of danger.  The jury completed a special verdict form on which it determined Skye’s injury was physical, and it found Maersk liable for Skye’s left ventricular hypertrophy.  The district court then entered the jury’s verdict and denied Maersk’s motion.  The defendant appealed, again requesting judgment as a matter of law, claiming the injury was caused by work-related stress and was time-barred.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that in order to prevent infinite and unpredictable employer liability, United States Supreme Court precedent barred recovery under the Jones Act for injuries caused by work-related stress outside of the zone of danger.

About the Author

J.D. candidate 2016, Tulane University Law School; B.A. 2011, Valparaiso University.


89 Tul. L. Rev. 1307 (2015)