What Is a Jones Act Vessel?

March 21, 2023

The Jones Act is a federal law that protects the rights of maritime workers who are injured or killed on the job. This law allows them to seek compensation from their employers for medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other damages. However, the Jones Act only applies to certain maritime work environments that meet the definition of a “vessel” under the law. A vessel is any watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water. The Jones Act defines several specific requirements for vessels, such as being in navigation, having a crew, and having a purpose. Maritime employees can learn what to expect from their employer by understanding if their work environment qualifies as a Jones Act vessel.

Requirements for Jones Act Vessels

To qualify as a Jones Act vessel, a watercraft must meet three major requirements: it must be owned by an American or American company, operated in navigable waters, and used to transport goods or passengers. All of these requirements must be met for the vessel to qualify.

They Must Be Owned by an American or American Company

The Jones Act only applies to vessels that are owned by American companies or individuals, even though they may operate in international waters. This is because the Jones Act aims to protect the U.S. shipping industry by ensuring that only U.S.-built, owned, and documented vessels can transport merchandise between coastwise points within the United States.

They Must Be Operated in Navigable Waters

A vessel must also be operated in navigable waters to qualify as a Jones Act vessel. The Jones Act defines navigable waters as “waters of the United States, including the territorial sea.” This means that a vessel must spend at least 30% of its time in U.S. waters or ports to be considered a Jones Act vessel. A seaman who works on such a vessel may be eligible for compensation under the Jones Act if they are injured on the job.

They Must Be Used to Transport Goods or Passengers

A vessel must be used to transport goods or passengers between U.S. ports or points to qualify as a Jones Act vessel. This excludes vessels that are used for exploration, research, drilling, construction or other purposes that do not involve moving cargo or people. Some examples of vessels that may qualify as Jones Act vessels are ferries, fishing boats, freighters and cargo ships.

How Have Requirements Changed Over Time?

The requirements for Jones Act Vessels have changed over time as courts have interpreted the law’s definition of “vessel” to include different types of maritime structures. One example of such a change is the 2005 Supreme Court case Stewart v. Dutra Construction Company, which held that a massive floating dredge called the Super Scoop was a vessel under the Jones Act. The Court reasoned that the Super Scoop could transport equipment and workers over water, even though it was not self-propelled and had to be towed from place to place. The Court also rejected the argument that the Super Scoop was not a vessel because it performed a function other than transportation, such as digging tunnels underwater. The Court concluded that a vessel is “any watercraft practically capable of maritime transportation, regardless of its primary purpose or state of transit at a particular moment.” This broadened the scope of potential Jones Act claims for seamen who work on immobile or unconventional maritime structures like offshore drilling platforms.

What Happens if You’re Injured on a Jones Act Vessel?

If you are injured on a Jones Act vessel, you may have the right to sue your employer for personal injury damages under federal law. The Jones Act is a law that protects seamen who work on vessels on navigable waters from negligence or unseaworthiness of their employers or co-workers. Unlike most land-based workers, seamen are not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Therefore, injured seamen need to seek the help of a lawyer who has experience with Jones Act cases. A Jones Act lawyer can help you prove your employer’s fault, calculate your damages, and file your lawsuit within the three-year statute of limitations.

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