Saturday, April 07, 2007

Anything That Floats

by Gina Sestak

One of the many jobs I held during law school was with a small law firm that specialized in admiralty cases.

"Admiralty" is the law of the high seas. Why, you are probably wondering, would there be an admiralty firm in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean? The answer is simple: river traffic. In the U.S., the federal government has admiralty jurisdiction over all navigable waterways, including inland rivers and streams.

Pittsburgh is situated at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. ["Confluence" is a fancy word for the place at which two or more rivers join.] The Allegheny and Monongahela meet in Downtown Pittsburgh to become the Ohio River. When the steel industry was booming, coal barges moving on these three rivers made Pittsburgh one of the busiest ports in the country.

I got the job through a friend. The firm was small - one lawyer, one secretary. They were husband and wife. They were elderly. They were Communists. It was a strange place to work.

The husband, Hymen, had been persecuted during the McCarthy era but remained a committed member of the Party. There were copies of Soviet Life around the office. This was a glossy magazine that touted the glories of the Russian Revolution. Typical cover photos featured smiling peasants seated atop gleaming tractors surrounded by abundant fields of grain, and the stories inside portrayed the Soviet bloc as a workers' paradise. Having known people who'd lived under Stalin and Krushchev, I thought otherwise, but Hymen kept the faith.

The wife, Ida, kept a tv blasting all day long, watching soap operas. Like many family members in business together, they tended to scream at each other.

I was primarily a file clerk, working under Ida's supervision. There was a room with floor to ceiling shelves full of thick case files. My job was to figure out which piece of paper went into which file, an important task because, as Hymen frequently mentioned, he had once lost a case because a critical piece of evidence had been misfiled and could not be located in time to be presented at trial.

Most of the cases fell under the "Jones Act," a federal law that required ship owners to provide sick or injured crew members with maintenance and cure -- that is, financial support and medical treatment until the victim recovered. This made a lot of sense if a crew member got sick or hurt while the ship was docked in Zanzibar or Canton. Barge owners tended to fight it, though, when (as happened in one of the firm's cases) the crew member was taken off the barge with pneumonia within two hours of reporting for work, while he was still within a few miles of his home in West Virginia.

Most of the cases, though, involved job-related injuries. The rivers are a hazardous work place. Aside from the obvious dangers of wrecking into other boats or obstacles [bridge abutments, etc.], being swept over dams, and just sinking in general, crew members could fall overboard or be buried by a shifting load of coal. A snapped cable could slice through flesh.

The job prompted me to take a class in Admiralty, which has the distinction of being my only law school class that had a field trip. A group of us, accompanied by the professor, canoed down a portion of the Allegheny River. I brought my then-husband along and, while the others tended to float sedately, Terry and I paddled madly from one side of the river to the other, getting stuck in the tops of inundated trees and looking for river otters. It was the most fun I had in law school, which generally managed to be both pressured and boring.

What did I learn from this job?

I learned that where an injury occurs can make a major difference to the victim. An injured barge worker was legally entitled to maintenance and cure under the federal Jones Act. Someone loading the barge would be entitled to medical care and some formula-determined financial assistance based upon a determination of disability under the federal Longshoremen and Harbor Workers Act. A person similarly injured on shore would be covered by Workers' Compensation, which varies from state to state. Only the barge worker would be entitled to anything if felled by illness rather than an injury.

I learned that, if you're going to get sick, it's best to do it while you're working on a barge.


brenda said...


Too bad you don't still work for Hymen and Ida. I am currently in search of early 20th century copies of a socialist magazine called "The Masses". ah, timing is everything.

Good story, as always.

mike said...

Your comment that law school generally was pressured and boring hit a chord with me...for some reason, that's always how I pictured it. This from someone who was enthralled (and still is) with Russian history, politics and literature...the stuff that puts most people to sleep.

Tory said...

I love how you make these work situations come alive! I think it's a good lesson that you don't have to travel half-way across the world to encounter novelty and a different culture. You probably know more about the different cultures in Pittsburgh than anyone I know.

I'm still puzzled, however, about how your canoe trip taught you about admirality law. Sounds like fun, though!

Judy Schneider said...

Another great post, Gina! You have such fascinating people cross your path!

CathyCorn said...

And yet another episode in the Gina's jobs saga. You amaze me. Thanks for sharing this with us. How many jobs to go?

Gina said...

Cathy -
There are still dozens of jobs to go.