Jones Act & Maritime Injuries at Sea

March 8, 2021

Jones Act attorneys know that work on the high seas and on navigable waterways is difficult and heroic. The legal system has long recognized that the people who engage in this work are entitled to special legal protection.

Origins of Maritime Law

Maritime law dates back centuries.  One of the earliest references is Rhodian Sea Law written between 600 and 800 A.D.  In England, there were separate admiralty courts that had different laws and procedures than traditional common law courts.

Admiralty law in the United States developed initially through admiralty cases that followed the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789.  Two of the Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, were maritime lawyers.

Article III of the Constitution provides that the “judicial power shall extend . . . to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.”  Congress granted federal district courts exclusive original jurisdiction in civil cases in admiralty and maritime matters through the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Supreme Court decisions in the 1800s granted federal admiralty jurisdiction over injury and tort suits including ship collisions, passenger injuries, and cargo damage. In 1851, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution granted admiralty jurisdiction not just to cases arising on the high seas, but to all cases arising on all “navigable waters,” including waters wholly within the borders of a state.

About The Jones Act

At one time, seamen had no right to compensation for injuries caused by fellow crewmembers or the captain.

That changed in 1920, when Congress passed the Jones Act.  If you were injured as a seaman or a maritime worker, you may be entitled to compensation under the Jones Act–a provision that allows seamen to sue their employers for negligence.

In general, the Jones Act applies to maritime accidents on the high seas and navigable waters in the United States.

Jury Trials In Jones Act Cases

In the traditional “admiralty” courts of England and elsewhere, special judges decided maritime cases.

In fact, the United States Constitution did not guarantee the right to a jury trial in admiralty cases, either.  The Seventh Amendment guaranteed the right to jury trials only in cases brought “at common law.”

The Jones Act changed the game.  When it was passed, 46 U.S.C. § 30104 explicitly provided that seaman shall have “the right of trial by jury.”

Thus, Jones Act seamen who file suit in federal court have the right to make an election: (1) they may bring claims “in admiralty” under federal rule 9(h) with no jury, or (2) “at law” with a jury.

The ability of seamen to change their 9(h) or jury trial designation has been the source of much litigation, as reflected by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Rachel v. Ingram Corp.

When Jones Act cases are filed in state court, either a plaintiff or a defendant may request a jury.  This was recognized by the Washington Supreme Court in Endicott v. Icicle Seafoods, Inc.

Jones Act Cases May Be Brought In State Court Or Federal Court

As an additional protection, Jones Act claims may be brought in state court, as opposed to federal court.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 includes a clause “saving to suitors the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it.”  This is referred to as the “Saving to Suitors Clause.”

This gives most personal injury plaintiffs the right to bring maritime and admiralty claims in state court.


An interesting issue arose when companies started building fixed platforms offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.  Many of these structures are not traditional vessels in navigation, nor are they automatically subject to state law.

To deal with this issue, in 1953, Congress passed the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which granted federal admiralty jurisdiction to offshore workers

Under OCSLA, the personal injury laws of the state adjacent to the platform are “borrowed” for purposes of litigating the claims of most injured workers.  Certain injuries sustained by fixed platform workers, however, are governed by maritime law.

Maritime Injury Cases

Workers injured aboard the following vessels are often entitled to maritime compensation:

  • Jack-up rigs
  • Semi-submersibles
  • Drillships
  • Barges
  • Tankers
  • Cruise ships
  • Dredges
  • Tugboats
  • Crewboats

Maritime Law Questions? Our Houston Jones Act Attorneys Can Help

Navigating the ins and outs of maritime and offshore law is tricky.

Our Houston Jones Act lawyers are ready to help. Please call us at 800-489-2216 for a free, confidential consultation.

Get a Free Case Review by Calling Morrow & Sheppard Now.

We’re available 24/7.

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