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Your Legal Rights as a Jones Act Seaman

June 13, 2019

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 work injury accidents on the high seas and navigable waters in the United States.

Maritime law, also called admiralty law, has long considered seamen “wards of admiralty,” and that they deserve protection under the law. This understanding that seamen are ultimately under the care of their employers established an obligation on vessel owners to care for seamen who sustained injuries while working. The obligation of a vessel owner who employs seamen to care of them if they are injured or become ill is of ancient vintage. This duty appears in the medieval sea codes and is of earlier origin.

Historically and as it continues today if a seaman was injured during a voyage, the shipowner had to provide transportation and wages until the end of the voyage. Additionally, the owner had to provide “maintenance and cure” (payment for medical care and a small stipend for living expenses until the injured seaman reached “maximum medical improvement”) to the seaman after the voyage ended.

Prior to the Jones Act, in a line of cases beginning with the Osceola in 1903, the United States Supreme Court held that an injured seaman had no remedy against a negligent shipowner or fellow seaman other than maintenance and cure. Instead, a seaman could only recover compensation for injuries based on the unseaworthiness of the ship, as was consistent with traditional maritime law.

Congress changed all that with the Jones Act, where they outlined why it was important for the national defense of the U.S. to have a strong maritime industry, which means protecting those who work offshore and on the high seas. The Jones Act, under maritime law, protects any U.S. citizen working as a seaman who suffers injury or illness due to unseaworthiness or negligence aboard a vessel operating in navigable waters. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, is a United States federal statute that regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports.

Negligence under the Jones Act

The Jones Act offers relief to injured seamen in the maritime industry and ensures they receive the compensation they deserve for their injuries in a maritime lawsuit, also known as a “Jones Act claim.” If you are an eligible seaman or offshore worker, and you may qualify for benefits under the Jones Act. Such benefits include:

  • Current and future medical expenses;
  • Current and future lost wages; and
  • Pain and suffering.

In order to bring a successful claim, someone who qualifies under “seaman status” must also not only prove that their injury occurred at sea or while working as a harbor worker, but also that their employer was negligent somehow that led to their injury. A Jones Act seaman may sue their employer for damages if they sustained an injury while working and their employer’s negligence contributed to the injury. An injured seaman may recover under the Jones Act even if the ship owner’s negligence was slight. Additionally, if a worker dies as a result of the employer’s negligence, the family can recover under the Death on High Seas Act.

An employer has been held to be responsible for several types of unsafe conditions aboard their ships, including:

  • Breakage of equipment;
  • Improperly maintained equipment;
  • Grease or oil on the deck;
  • The vessel owner’s failure to provide crew members with the proper equipment for seamen to be prepared for the tasks they are assigned to handle;
  • Unsafe work methods;
  • Improper training of the seaman or of the crew in general;
  • Negligence of the seaman’s co-workers; and
  • Assault by a co-worker.

However, recovery is not simple. Each accident, employer, state, and particular maritime occupation is different, and the rights to which you are entitled may differ as well.

Who Qualifies as a “Jones Act Seaman”

For the Jones Act to apply, a person must be what the law considers a “seaman”, which has legal significance. Determining whether a person is a seaman is a mixed question of law and fact, and the courts determine it on a case-by-case basis. If a person has questions regarding seaman status, it is best to consult an experienced Jones Act claim attorney.

When Congress passed the Jones Act in 1929, seamen gained the right to sue ship owners for injuries they suffered as a result of the shipowners’ or fellow crew members’ negligence. What Congress failed to do, however, was specifically define “seaman”, and there has been much confusion among the courts about who should enjoy the protections that the Jones Act affords seamen.

Because Congress failed to explicitly state who qualifies as a seaman in the Jones Act, the court looks to previous case law to determine whether a person is a seaman. Past court decisions have helped to determine some characteristics that those with seaman status share.

A 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision held that one of the requirements for a person to attain seaman status is that his or her job duties must “contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.” The other requirement that the Court held is that a person needs to have a “connection to a vessel in navigation or group of vessels that is substantial in both its duration and its nature.”

Based upon the Supreme Court’s decision, lower courts have found that even those jobs are not traditionally those that “seamen” perform provide seaman status. Some examples of occupations that people hold on ships which “contribute to the function of the vessel”, and also qualify as having “seaman status” have been held to include:

  • Bookkeepers;
  • Bartenders;
  • Maids;
  • Cooks; and
  • Telephone operators.

The tests established by the Supreme Court do not automatically eliminate those who must go ashore in service of the vessel from seaman status. Similarly, a land-based worker does not attain seaman status if his or her work occurs onboard a ship briefly. A widely-used rule for determining whether a person’s connection to a ship is “substantial in duration and nature” states that, in general, if a person spends at least 30 percent of his or her time on the vessel they are likely a seaman (among other factors).

Seaman status is key to bringing a Jones Act claim, and the court must look to the totality of the circumstances as well as the function of the particular ship in question to see if a person helps accomplish the vessel’s mission.

Vessel in Navigation Requirements

Like “seaman”, a vessel “in navigation” has a significant legal meaning. The requirement essentially means that the vessel has to:

  • be afloat;
  • in operation;
  • capable of moving; and
  • on navigable waters.

The vessel does not actually have to be moving or at sea in order for the person to qualify as a seaman/in navigation. The vessel simply has to be capable of moving under its own power or being sailed (if it is a sailboat). A vessel “in navigation” can be tied up at a dock or mooring, but a vessel “in navigation” cannot be in a drydock or out of the water up on blocks.

Another legal term with significant meaning to a Jones Act case is “navigable waters”, which means waters (such as a river or a lake) that are capable of being used for interstate or foreign commerce. The ocean and all waters that are connected directly into the water are navigable waters, but landlocked lakes can also qualify, as long as they either extend into another state or are connected to a river that flows into another state.

Not considered vessels “in navigation” under the Jones Act:

  • Oil drilling platforms;
  • Newly built vessels that are undergoing sea trials to make sure that they are ready for delivery to the owner (and thus is not in actual commercial operation); and
  • Casino barges (as some states require casinos to be afloat, but do not actually require them to sail around a lake or the ocean, and some floating casinos do nothing more than float in man-made ponds).

Contact Jones Act Lawyers for a Free Consultation

Claims under the Jones Act can be quite complex. Different procedural rules and standards for liability apply in these cases more than those applicable to traditional personal injury and workers’ compensation claims. It is important to have an experienced maritime law attorney handling maritime injury cases in order to make sure that the court recognizes the seaman status of those working on ships who need the benefits the Jones Act provides.

If you were injured working as a seaman on a tugboat, barge, cargo ship, or another vessel, you should speak with a Jones Act attorney for a free, confidential consultation regarding your injury case. Our team at Morrow & Sheppard LLP wants to understand your unique situations so we can provide guidance that will help you obtain a favorable result. Contact us today for help in navigating your legal claim.

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