Jones Act - Marine Workers' Injury & Cabotage Law



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What is the Jones Act?

The Jones Act is federal legislation that protects American workers injured at sea. Also referred to as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, this law allows qualifying sailors who have been involved in accidents or become sick while performing their duties to recover compensation from their employers.

Pursuant to the act, negligence claims can be brought when an injury results from the careless acts of an employer or coworker. Ship owners can also be liable if an accident is caused by the unsafe condition of their vessel. And no matter how or why a sailor was injured, certain medical and living expenses must be paid.

Qualifying as a “Seaman”

Not everyone who works on or near the water will meet the criteria of the Jones Act. The law expressly states that it only applies to “seamen,” but unfortunately, it does not provide a functional definition of the term. Thus, maritime attorneys look to the text of court decisions to figure out if a particular crewmember will qualify.

Federal courts have interpreted the term seaman to mean an individual who is assigned to a vessel or fleet that operates in navigable waters, meaning waterways capable of being used for interstate or foreign commerce. The individual must perform work that is related to the vessel’s purpose. As long as it furthers the mission of the vessel, the relative importance of the individual’s job description is not important.

Seaman status under the Jones Act also requires that an employee spend a significant amount of time upon the vessel. One federal court has stated that an employee must spend no less than 30% of his or her time onboard to qualify. While this 30% figure is useful as a rule of thumb, it is by no means determinative. Employees who are unsure if they qualify as seamen should consult a maritime attorney for advice on their particular circumstances.

Claims for Negligence

The most important benefit for those who qualify under the Jones Act is the ability to bring a negligence lawsuit against their employer. By contrast, most land-based employment is covered by workers compensation, which allows injured employees to recover a limited amount of damages, without examining the issue of fault. This may provide a degree of certainty, but without the chance to prove negligence, seamen would be unable to hold their employers fully accountable.

Negligence occurs when an employer or coworker takes unreasonable risks and a seaman is injured as a result. The wrongfulness of the conduct is highly relevant, and helps determine how much money the seaman will receive. These lawsuits not only compensate the victim, they deter employers from ignoring the safety of their workers.

Once an injured seaman has established negligence, he or she can ask the jury to award several types of damages. These fall into two categories, economic and non-economic. Economic damages compensate for things like past and future medical expenses, lost wages, and loss of earning capacity. Non-economic damages are meant to pay for pain and suffering, and to punish the employer in cases involving egregious conduct.

Liability for Unseaworthy Vessels

Sometimes the substandard condition of a vessel is to blame for a seaman’s injury, rather than the direct actions of the employer or someone else onboard. In these situations, the “unseaworthiness” doctrine applies. The owner or entity in control of a vessel has a legal duty to ensure it is in safe working order, properly equipped, and operated by a competent crew. If any of these responsibilities are not met, and a seaman gets hurt, the owner will be liable in tort. This means the victim can recover the same types of damages available in a negligence lawsuit.

Right to Maintenance and Cure

The doctrine of maintenance and cure differs from the other methods of obtaining compensation, primarily because it does not take the conduct of the employer or ship owner into account. In this respect, maintenance and cure resembles onshore workers compensation. All the seaman must prove is that the injury or sickness is work-related.

A claim for maintenance and cure is easier for a seaman to prove, but the recoverable damages are far less extensive. Seamen must be paid a daily allowance to cover living expenses while they heal. Payment for medical expenses is also included, and must continue until the seaman reaches maximum medical improvement. It is important to note that these benefits, while modest, can be collected in addition to any recovery for negligence or unseaworthiness liability.

Retaining a Jones Act Attorney

Jones Act claims are considered a niche, even among attorneys who have already narrowed their practice to maritime law. If you have been injured or contracted an illness at sea, your case needs to be handled by a specialist. Contact a Jones Act attorney to learn about your right to compensation.

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Articles in HG.org Related to Jones Act

Jones Act - US

  • Jones Act - Admiralty and Maritime Law

    The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 is one of three congressional laws commonly referred to as the "Jones Act".

  • Jones Act - Maritime Trades Department

    The Jones Act is the best known of the nation’s cabotage laws. By calling for movements of water-borne cargoes between U.S. ports by vessels that are American-crewed, -built and –owned, it has enhanced important U.S. security interests and generated many economic benefits.

  • Jones Act Cases

    Digests and case links to Circuit Court Admiralty Cases that have as an issue the Jones Act.

  • Merchant Marine Act of 1920 - Overview

    The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 is a United States Federal statute that regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. It is a cabotage law which also contains provisions regarding seamen's rights.

Jones Act - International

Organizations Related to the Jones Act

  • Maritime Cabotage Task Force (MCTF)

    The Maritime Cabotage Task Force (MCTF) is dedicated to educating America on the economic, national security, environmental and safety benefits of the Jones Act and other U.S. cabotage laws so that domestic waterborne commerce remains a pillar of our national existence.

  • Seafarers International Union

    The Seafarers International Union, Atlantic, Gulf, Lakes and Inland Waters District/NMU, AFL-CIO, represents unlicensed United States merchant mariners sailing aboard U.S.-flag vessels in the deep sea, Great Lakes and inland trades. The union also represents licensed U.S. mariners in the Great Lakes and inland sectors.

Publications Related to the Jones Act