The Jones Act Maritime Law: What is It and How Does it Work?
The Jones Act is a federal statute that requires that goods transported between United States ports are to be carried on vessels that are owned and operated by citizens or permanent residents of the United States. The full copy of the Jones Act can be found in Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920.
But the Jones Act doesn’t only apply to maritime commerce—it also provides significant protections to maritime workers classified as “seaman” under the Jones Act by allowing them to bring direct negligence actions against their employers following a workplace injury. This is a stark contrast to the traditional workers’ compensation scheme that prevents most land-based workers (and longshoremen) from maintaining negligence claims against the companies they work for.
All manner of commercial vessels may fall under the Jones Act, including but not limited to tugboats, tankers, oilfield service vessels, container and cargo ships, cruise ships, and commercial fishing vessels. The Jones Act even extends to some offshore drilling rigs, drilling ships, and production platforms designed to a reasonably practical degree for transporting persons or cargo over navigable waters.
Three Requirements Must Be Met for the Jones Act to Apply
There are three requirements that must be satisfied in order to be eligible for Jones Act compensation:
- The person must fit the definition of a “seaman” as outlined in the Act;
- The incident must occur within the course of the person’s job ; and
- The person’s illness or damage must be the product of their employer’s or another employee’s negligence.
The Definition of a “Seaman”
Only those who are deemed “seamen” are covered by the Act. Under the Jones Act, a person qualifies as a seaman if they have a connection to a vessel or a fleet of vessels that is substantial in both time and nature.
Courts generally consider whether a person’s labor supports a ship’s function or the attainment of the vessel’s goals or missions when deciding whether that person meets the Act’s definition of a seaman.
Contract employees, longshoremen, and port workers are not eligible for the Jones Act seaman status, though they may be able to file lawsuits for their injuries under other maritime statutes or general maritime law.
There Are Three Types of Actions You Can Assert as a Jones Act Seaman
Under the Jones Act and general maritime law, a seaman may assert claims for (1) Jones Act negligence, (2) unseaworthiness and/or (3) maintenance and cure. These claims are described below.
(1) Jones Act Negligence
The seaman’s first claim, under the federal law known as the Jones Act, is that his/her employer was negligent, and that this negligence was a cause of his/her injuries. Jones Act employers can be negligent for:
- doing an act that a reasonably prudent person would not do,
- failing to do something that a reasonably prudent person would do, under the same or similar circumstances,
- failing to provide for the safety of the crew,
- failing to comply with a duty required by law,
- assigning the seaman to perform a task that he/she was not adequately trained to perform and/or
- failing to provide a reasonably safe place to work
Significantly, in a Jones Act claim, the word “negligence” is liberally interpreted. For example, Jones Act employers bear the responsibility for any negligence that played a part, however slight, in causing a seaman’s injuries. Further, the fact that an employer conducted its operations like that of other companies is not dispositive of whether it was or was not negligent.
The seaman’s second claim is for unseaworthiness of a vessel that caused his/her injuries. A shipowner owes every member of the crew employed on its vessel the absolute duty to keep and maintain the vessel and all its decks and passageways, appliances, gear, tools, parts, and equipment in a seaworthy condition at all times. A seaworthy vessel is one that is “reasonably fit for its intended use.”
The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel extends to the duty to supply an adequate and competent crew. And a vessel may be unseaworthy even though it has a numerically adequate crew, if too few persons are assigned to a given task.
The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel is said to be “absolute” because the owner may not delegate that duty to anyone else. Significantly, liability for an unseaworthy condition does not in any way depend on negligence or fault or blame—if an owner does not provide a seaworthy vessel, no amount of care or prudence excuses the owner from liability.
(3) Maintenance and cure
A seaman’s third claim is for what is called “maintenance and cure.” “Maintenance” refers to the cost of food, lodging, and transportation. “Cure,” on the other hand, refers to the medical care owed to a seaman who suffers an injury or illness while working in the service of the ship. Cure is owed until the seaman reaches what’s known as “maximum medical improvement.”
A seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure even if he/she is not injured as a result of any negligence on the part of his employer or any unseaworthy condition of the vessel. To recover maintenance and cure, a seaman need only show that he/she suffered injury or illness while in the service of the vessel on which he/she was employed as a seaman.
If, after investigating a maintenance and cure claim, the employer unreasonably rejects the claim, the employer is liable for both the maintenance and cure payments and for compensatory damages caused by the unreasonable failure to pay. Additionally, the employer may have to pay punitive damages and attorney’s fees if it is determined that its failure to pay maintenance and cure was not only unreasonable but was also a willful and wanton disregard of the seaman’s claim for maintenance and cure.
If a judge or jury finds that an employer is liable for Jones Act negligence or unseaworthiness, then the seaman is entitled to compensation. The following damages can be recovered:
- past and future physical pain and suffering, including physical disability, impairment, and inconvenience, and the effect of the seamen’s injuries and inconvenience on the normal pursuits and pleasures of life;
- past and future mental anguish and feelings of economic insecurity caused by the disability;
- income lost in the past;
- impairment of earning capacity or ability in the future, including impairment of the seaman’s earning capacity due to his/her physical condition;
- past medical expenses; and
- future medical expenses
Even Seamen Who Were Partially at Fault for Their Injuries Could Be Eligible for Compensation Under the Jones Ac
Even if they contributed to the accident or incident that led to their injuries, seamen are nonetheless eligible for compensation under the Jones Act. Even if they played just a small part in the harm, vessel owners may still be held accountable. The total amount of damages, however, may be reduced to account for the percentage of fault attributed to the injured seaman.
Family Members Can Assert Jones Act Claims on Behalf of their Loved Ones Involved in Fatal Maritime Accidents
When a family member passes away due to a sickness or injury sustained at work on a vessel, the Jones Act gives the family the ability to file a wrongful death lawsuit. The seaman’s death must have happened while he or she was working for the employer in connection with the vessel, just like with other Jones Act claims, and as a result of that employer’s carelessness.
Get in Touch with a Reputable Maritime Law Attorney Today
You may be entitled to compensation if you or a loved one were hurt while working in the service of a vessel.
And, whatever you do, please do not accept any settlement offers from your employer or their insurance carrier before speaking with a qualified maritime attorney like those at Huber Thomas, LLP.