The Jones Act Explained

March 16, 2021 @ 10:18 am

the jones act blog photo of an oil rig at sea

What is the Jones Act? If you are an offshore worker, the Jones Act may give you or your family the ability to file a personal injury lawsuit if you are injured or killed due to your employer’s negligence.

Simply put, working in maritime and oilfield industries can be dangerous. Companies operating shipping vessels, commercial fishing boats and transport companies create their own offshore world. Work culture can be fast-paced, demanding and dangerous, and land-based rules don’t always apply. However, the Jones Act holds maritime companies responsible for the safety and well-being of their crew members.

The Jones Act—Also Known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920

Did you know that the Jones Act is over 100 years old? It was President Woodrow Wilson’s belief that after World War I, America needed to protect its domestic maritime industry as a matter of national security and defense. The act still stands as a federal law that says all vessels carrying goods between two U.S. ports must be American—from build and ownership to flag and crew. However, it also gives certain protections for crew members on those vessels—Jones Act protections that extend to all seamen performing work related to a vessel’s purpose in the water.

Important Terms in the Jones Act—Does the Jones Act Apply to You?

Section 33 of the Jones Act is titled “Recovery for Injury to or Death of Seaman.” The act gives any seaman injured “in the course of his employment” the right to sue his or her employer in a civil personal injury suit determined by jury trial. If a seaman dies of an injury, the Jones Act allows their family to pursue compensation.

In determining an offshore worker’s eligibility for compensation under the Jones Act, court decisions have focused on two crucial conditions: The injured person must qualify as a seaman, and the vessel must be in navigation.

  • Seaman: While the Jones Act doesn’t define the term seaman, the courts define it as an employee whose duties contribute to a vessel’s function or completion of its mission. The employee must “have a connection” to the vessel or group of vessels.

    The working rule basically defines a seaman as anyone who spends 30 percent or more of their working time on a vessel in navigation. Anyone from a fisherman to a maintenance worker, waiter or bartender may in fact be a seaman. Also note that people who work for a fleet with multiple vessels or rotate among vessels qualify as seamen if they meet the 30-percent rule.

  • Vessel in Navigation: The Jones Act doesn’t define the term vessel either. However, it does specify that the term applies to “every description of vessel navigating on any sea or channel, lake or river,” and it includes vessels being repaired prior to putting out to sea.

    However, courts have discriminated between vessels that operate under their own means of propulsion versus those that are towed, pushed, moored or otherwise secured. The vessel or platform’s purpose, navigational status and operational time frame are all factors for consideration as to whether it qualifies as a vessel in navigation.

The final component to filing a civil suit under the Jones Act is employer negligence. The Jones Act requires that vessels be “designed to afford the best and most complete protection for passengers and crew against fire and all marine perils.” The vessel itself must be safe, and working conditions and practices must also be safe. If conditions fail to be safe, that error opens an employer or owner to valid charges of negligence.

What Jones Act Seaman Protections Mean for You

Today, regardless of who is at fault, if a seaman falls ill or is injured, that seaman is automatically entitled to two kinds of compensation that resemble land-based workmen’s compensation: maintenance and cure.

  • Maintenance covers essential household costs like rent or mortgage payments, utilities, food, insurance and taxes, for example.
  • Cure refers to medical expenses and any transportation to and from those appointments.

However, maintenance and cure are minimal amounts that apply only until the seaman reaches the “maximum medical improvement”—MMI—that can be reasonably expected. In addition, union contracts and geographical conventions may further limit an employer’s obligations.

Unfortunately, maintenance and cure fail to address the devastating, long-term and often irreparable damages that can accompany a serious maritime injury or death due to employer negligence. Moreover, some companies may attempt to deny even those benefits.

That’s why the right to pursue a Jones Act personal injury lawsuit through a jury trial is so important. A personal injury lawsuit under the Jones Act entitles you to ask for all of the compensations you deserve, from the loss of future earnings and the cost of future medical care to pain and suffering, mental anguish, and damages associated with the loss of a loved one’s life and contributions.

Get Started Today

Maritime law is complex, and the statute of limitations for Jones Act lawsuits is three years from the cause of the action. If you feel you’re entitled to compensation from an injury offshore, it’s time to contact the maritime personal injury attorneys at Morrow, Morrow, Ryan, Bassett & Haik. Contact us today, and tell us your story. Our team is waiting to put the Jones Act to work for you.

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