Understanding the Jones Act and Your Rights as a Seaman

The Jones Act is a federal law that gives seamen who were injured in the course of their employment the right to sue their employer for personal injury damages. Unlike almost all land-based workers, seamen are not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits under either state or federal law. Because injured seamen cannot file workers’ compensation claims against their employers, the only compensation that they are legally entitled to receive for their injuries is through the Jones Act and the general maritime law.

In general, a seaman is a person — from crewmember to captain — who performs a significant amount of his/her work on a vessel (any kind of ship or boat). Part-time seamen must spend at least 30% of the time working on a vessel in order to qualify under the Jones Act. In order to recover damages from the employer, the seaman must prove that the owner, captain, and/or crew of the vessel that the seaman worked on were negligent, and that their negligence was a cause of the seaman’s injury.

An important concept in Jones Act qualifications is the vessel’s legal requirement to be “in navigation.” Under maritime law, a vessel is said to be “in navigation” if it is floating on water, operable, able to travel unassisted by tugs or other vessels, and are in navigable waters which are suitable for domestic and foreign trade. Navigable waters can be:

  • Rivers
  • Oceans
  • Inland lakes shared by two or more states or linked to other navigable bodies of water

A vessel doesn’t have to be moving to be in navigation. A ship moored to a dock or passenger terminal can be considered to be in navigation if it’s floating on water as long as it is legally under corporate ownership and carrying out its tasks. However, if the ship is being refit or repaired on a drydock, it is not legally in navigation.

There are other qualifying factors that define what vessels can be considered to be “in navigation” per Jones Act law. For example, a cargo ship which just docked at Port Fourchon to deliver its cargo fits the legal parameters of being in navigation even though it is tied at the dock. On the other hand, a new cruise ship being tried out for seaworthiness and awaiting delivery to its owners may be steaming around on the ocean, but it is not officially part of the cruise line’s fleet. That vessel is not legally in navigation even though it’s afloat.

These legalities may seem trivial, but they are crucial in civil cases where the Jones Act is invoked.

The Jones Act considers negligence to occur when:

  • Someone does an action that a normally prudent person would not do
  • Someone fails to do something that a normally prudent person would do
  • Someone fails to take reasonable care to avoid being injured or causing injury to others

Even though working on any vessel involves certain risks, the Jones Act requires all maritime employers based in the United States to make sure that seamen work in a safe environment. Whether the ship is at sea or moored in port on navigable waters, the Jones Act requires employers to:

  • Make sure that a vessel’s deck is free of dangerous obstacles, unsecured cargo, or slippery substances, such as oil and grease
  • Ensure that every piece of equipment aboard is kept in good working condition and inspected regularly for possible defects
  • Make sure that every crew member aboard has the proper training and qualifications
  • Ensure that the vessel carries the tools and other materials necessary for the crew to work properly
  • Prevent physical confrontations between crew members
  • Make sure that the vessel avoids storms and other hazardous weather conditions
  • Create and implement operating procedures that emphasize safety as well as efficiency

Seamen can also file a suit claiming negligence on the part of an employer if:

  • Overtime is required constantly
  • Improper orders are issued
  • Proper supervision is not provided
  • Proper medical assistance is not given
  • Proper rescue is not provided in case of accident

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