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What Is the Jones Act and Why Does It Matter to Injured Mariners?

Let’s face it — maritime law is weird. It is uniquely listed in the U.S. Constitution yet shaped by centuries-old common laws that pre-date the country altogether. It is also subject to niche statutes that even general practice lawyers have never encountered.

This article will address one such unique maritime statute — the Jones Act, formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 — and explain the paternalistic treatment of shipboard employees under maritime law.

An Overview of the Jones Act

The Jones Act recently turned one hundred years old. That may seem old for a United States federal statute, but it is young in terms of maritime law. The Act was passed by Congress in 1920 with the primary goal of developing the United States merchant vessel fleet in support of the burgeoning economy and supplementing the country’s military needs in the time of war. The Jones Act increased the number of U.S.-built, U.S.-flagged, and U.S. citizen-manned merchant vessels by requiring that any shipping of goods or passengers between United States ports should be conducted only by United States ships. That rule is still in place today under 46 U.S.C. § 50102 and 46 U.S.C. § 55102. 

What Does the Jones Act Do for Injured Offshore Workers?

Under the Jones Act, Congress carried on maritime law’s protective stance toward merchant seamen, also known as “wards of the admiralty court.” Under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.Code § 30104 states that:

A seaman is injured in the course of employment or, if the seaman dies from the injury, the personal representative of the seaman may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer.

In essence, the Jones Act allows a qualifying “seaman” to sue his or her employer in state or federal court to recover monetary damages associated with a shipboard personal injury. Pause here for a moment and take that in — the Jones Act permits merchant seamen to bring a lawsuit against their employers for injuries on the job. That’s a big deal.

Laborers who were injured on the job during a shore-based occupation have heard about “workers’ compensation.” Workers’ compensation statutes are pervasive in the United States. While they are usually regulated at the state level, the common thread among these laws is that workers receive guaranteed benefits — like payment for medical bills and supplemental income during recovery — for workplace injuries. The legal trade-off, however, is that terrestrial workers are mostly barred from suing their employers for on-the-job injuries. 

Not so under the Jones Act. Jones Act seamen are overwhelmingly excluded from state workers’ compensation schemes. In fact, injured seamen are required to sue their employers (or at least make a pre-litigation claim) in order to maximize their benefits under the law.  

How To Prove a Personal Injury Claim Under the Jones Act 

As expected from a statute designed to protect merchant mariners, the Jones Act sets a broad standard of care. A seaman’s employer is required to:

  1. provide a reasonably safe place to work; and
  2. exercise ordinary care under the circumstances to maintain safety.

Suing a maritime employer for breach of the Jones Act standard of care is known as a “Jones Act negligence” claim. As with any other negligence claim, an injured seaman has the burden to prove duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. 

However, Jones Act negligence cases are often easier to prove than terrestrial negligence cases. Consider the “causation” element of negligence. Under the Jones Act, the maritime employer’s negligence needs only to play a part in the seaman’s injury — no matter how small that part may be (a.k.a. “featherweight causation”). 

Here are just a few conditions aboard a vessel that may cause injury to a seaman and result in a Jones Act negligence case:

  • Incompetent crew;
  • Slippery condition on deck;
  • Failure to provide proper safety equipment;
  • Failure to train the crew;
  • Failure to repair/maintain shipboard equipment.

Who Qualifies as a “Seaman” Under the Jones Act?

With the Jones Act and other favorable maritime laws at their disposal, it’s no surprise that injured workers want to qualify as “seamen” under the Jones Act. Consequently, the United States Supreme Court has spilled much ink on defining a Jones Act seaman. 

Simply stated, a would-be seaman must satisfy a two-part test to qualify for protection under the Jones Act. To be a seaman:

  1. The maritime employee’s duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission; and 
  2. The maritime employee must have a substantial connection to a vessel or group of vessels in navigation.

The first element, requiring contribution to the vessel’s mission, is broad and easily satisfied by merchant mariners. However, the second element can be a sticky wicket.

Courts have resolved the “substantial connection” requirement to mean that a would-be seaman must spend a threshold amount of time doing shipboard work. Specifically, courts look at whether the maritime employee historically spends at least 30 percent of employment time in service of a vessel or fleet of vessels.  

Here’s a list of maritime workers that are often considered “seamen” under the Jones Act:

  • Deckhands;
  • Commercial fishermen;
  • Ship officers;
  • Able seamen;
  • Engineers;
  • Tankermen;
  • Cooks/stewards.
Also read:What Does a Maritime Lawyer Do? 

A maritime lawyer, also known as an admiralty attorney, handles legal issues arising from United States maritime law. Maritime lawyers...

What Is the Statute of Limitations for a Jones Act Injury Claim?

Like most personal injury causes of action, the Jones Act is subject to a strict statute of limitations. Statutes of limitations define the maximum amount of time that can pass before an injured claimant files suit in court. Failing to file suit before the time allowed in the statute of limitations risks forever barring an injury claim. 

Jones Act negligence cases are subject to a three-year time bar (46 U.S.C. § 30106). That means that an injured seaman must file in court within three years after the accident or incident that caused the injury. 

Since Jones Act cases are customarily filed with the assistance of a maritime injury lawyer, it is crucial to start interviewing lawyers as soon as possible. Some lawyers are hesitant to take on cases shortly before the statute of limitations runs out.  

Key Takeaways:

  • The Jones Act protects merchant seamen and provides injured mariners a cause of action against their employers.
  • The Jones Act requires a maritime employer to provide a reasonably safe place to work and exercise ordinary care under the circumstances to maintain safety.
  • Unlike workers’ compensation schemes, injured seamen must make a colorable claim against their employers to maximize their benefits under the law.
  • A “seaman” under the Jones Act must contribute to the mission of the vessel and spend a substantial amount of time aboard a vessel(s).
  • The statute of limitations for a Jones Act negligence case is three (3) years.

Final Thoughts

Maritime law can be confusing, and full-time maritime lawyers are few. If you were injured while working offshore, or if you tragically lost a loved one at sea, start interviewing maritime lawyers as a matter of urgency. It may be hard for a layperson to know whether a claim under the Jones Act is possible in his or her case. However, there are specialist lawyers who want to assist injured mariners with evaluating their cases. Do not guess at what benefits you may be entitled to under maritime law — give an expert a call. 

Article by Adam Deitz

Adam Deitz is a maritime personal injury attorney at Mariner Law, PLLC. Adam is also a licensed merchant mariner with experience navigating commercial passenger vessels on both coasts. He is proud to use his years of experience to represent individuals who were injured on or around the navigable waters of the United States, including Jones Act seamen, vessel passengers, longshoremen, and recreational boaters.

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