The federal Merchant Marine Act, otherwise known as the “Jones Act,” represents the primary basis for claims of seamen, fishermen, and similar offshore workers for workplace injuries. This body of law is found at Title 46 of the United States Code, starting at section 30104. The Jones Act allows injured seaman, called “sailors” under the Act, to make claims and collect from their employers for the negligence of a ship owner, captain, or fellow members of the crew. It does this by, in substantial measure, extending the worker’s compensation coverage and law applicable to railroad workers (the Federal Employers Liability Act), to seaman.

The Jones Act reads in material part as follows: “[a]ny sailor who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment may, at his election, maintain an action for damages at law, with the right to trial by jury, and in such action all statutes of the United States modifying or extending the common-law right or remedy in cases of personal injury to railway employees shall apply. . . . “

This provision and related law allows seamen to bring actions against ship owners based on claims of unseaworthiness or negligence, rights not accorded to seaman under common maritime law. The Jones Act covers a number of industries, from shipping, to fishing, to dredging, oil, and tug boat operations, and a wide range of workers, including but not limited to deck hands, engineers, third bates, second mates, bosun or boatswain, captains, and roughnecks.

To qualify for coverage under the Jones Act, a worker must be a “seaman” injured while working on a “vessel” on a “navigable waterway.” Each of the words in italics represent a necessary precondition for coverage under the Jones Act.

Courts and practitioners have struggled with what exactly a “seaman” is here, although in general terms, a “seaman” is a member of a vessel’s crew, or permanently assigned to a fleet of vessels, who contributes to the function of the vessel and/or fulfillment of its mission. Persons who load and unload ships – or Longshoremen – are not covered under the Jones Act, but are covered under the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act, discussed elsewhere on this site. Similarly, a person who is temporarily on a vessel, such as a harbor pilot, even if contributing to the function of the vessel is generally considered not to be a “seaman.”

There is similar ambiguity with respect to what a “vessel” is under the Jones Act. For example, a river boat casino that was moored to the shore was considered not to be a “vessel.” Similarly, fixed drilling rigs are generally held not to be vessels while submersible rigs are generally considered to be “vessels.” The United States Supreme Court in Stewart v. Dutra (2005) 543 US 481, clarified the question somewhat by holding that a vessel is “a watercraft that is used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” There will continue to be evolution in this definition as new technologies present definitional challenges.

A “navigable water” under the Jones Act includes the oceans, and navigable rivers, inland canals and waterways. Here too there can be questions concerning whether a particular body is “navigable,” but these too require a case-by-case analysis.

Injured “seaman” are entitled to two basic types of recovery under the Jones Act and related law. One is called “maintenance and cure.” Maintenance is that amount of money that would be required to provide room and board to a seaman similar to what he would be accorded on a vessel, and generally is modest in amount: for example, $8 per day at the low end, and $35 per day at the high end. “Cure” is reasonable and necessary medical care to bring a seaman to a point of being permanent and stationary, who is stabilized at a point where he or she is not going to improve or deteriorate any further. Maintenance and cure does not require a showing of unseaworthiness or negligence.

On the other hand, injured seaman can also seek and recover greater and more comprehensive remedies on a showing of unseaworthiness or negligence. This sort of recovery includes past and present loss of income (including fringe benefits), or wage earning capacity, past and future medical expenses, life care expenses, pain and suffering damages, and whatever other “proximate damages” or other losses that might be caused by the accident in question. These same sort of damages with some modification are available to surviving family members of a deceased seaman.

Here the seaman (or his surviving family members), are required to show that the employer or its officers, agents, or employees were negligent, or that the employer’s equipment was defective or insufficient (i.e. “unseaworthy”) due to the negligence of the employer, and that this negligence was at least in part the cause of the injury or death in question. “Unseaworthy” or “unseaworthiness” is specified to be as something on a vessel that is “not fit for its intended purpose” such as a corroded step or deteriorated rope that give ways or breaks. This test has been construed broadly to favor “seaman.” A showing of negligence is not required, however, under the Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Act (discussed elsewhere on this website),

A seaman’s fuller recovery described above may be reduced by his or her “comparative negligence.” For example, if it is determined that a seaman was 25% at fault for a fall on a ship’s ladder, his overall recovery would be reduced by 25%. Again, reductions for comparative negligence do not occur under the Longshore and Harbor Worker’ Act.

Injuries that may be compensated under the Jones Act are not limited to those that occur during the course and scope of work activities, but also those that occur during the course of living on board, or going to or coming from the vessel. Negligence of an owner has been found based on unsafe equipment and appliance, inadequate care in selecting a mater and fellow crewmen, assaults by fellow crewmen, failure to avoid heavy weather, and failure to supervise or rescue.

In summary, the Jones Act provides substantial benefits to injured seamen and their surviving family members. An attorney knowledgeable in the Jones Act and related remedies should be consulted in order to maximize an injured worker’s recovery.