What is the Jones Act?

Were you or someone you know injured while working on a boat or vessel?  If so,  you may be able to recover under a body of law called the Jones Act.  Basically, the Jones Act consists of a set of laws that govern maritime business in the U.S.  Part of the Jones Act governs injuries sustained by Seaman while working in their capacity as Seaman on a Vessel. The Act is allows “seaman” to sue the seaman's employer for personal injury damages.  This may not seem significant when considered at first glance. However, since Seaman can recover under the Jones Act, they cannot qualify for normal state based workers compensation benefits that are available to injured workers who sustain an injury while working on land.  The only remedy for a Seaman for injuries is through the Jones Act or, in some cases, general maritime law. As you will see below, this has potential advantages and disadvantages for the Seaman.

What is required for “seaman” to recover under the Jones Act?

The critical question that needs to be considered by an employee who is injured while working on a vessel is whether the employee is a “Seaman”.  Very generally, a Seaman is an employee of a company who performs his or her work on a boat or some other kind of ship. The Jones Act calls the boat or the ship a “vessel”.  The employee who seeks to be covered under the Jones Act must show that a significant amount of the employee's work is done on the vessel. The Courts have held that the employee must show that at least 30% of their time was dedicated to working on the vessel (or fleet of vessels) in order to qualify for the Jones Act.

What it means to be considered a Seaman has been interpreted by different courts in different ways.  In 1995, however, the United States Supreme Court found that two basic elements must be established in order to have “seaman” status: Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 115 S.Ct. 2172 (1995)

  1. The worker's duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.
  2. The worker must have a connection to the vessel or fleet of vessels in navigation.  

The Court in Chandris also confirmed that the 30% guideline to establish seaman status. As with many legal issues, many cases have been decided since 1995 to further define what constitutes Seaman status.

It is critical not to overlook the requirement that the Seaman be assigned to a Vessel or fleet of vessels.  Courts have repeated that there is no precise definition of what a vessel is under the Jones Act and that the analysis is very fact intensive.  Boats and barges are often considered vessels. In some cases, cranes and pile driving barges are considered vessels. Again, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue and decided in 2005 and essentially offered a broad interpretation to include any watercraft that is capable of transportation and has been suspended for “navigation” for some period of time.  It is clear, however, that a particular watercraft can move from being a vessel to not being a vessel depending on its navigation status.

What types of damages are covered by the Jones Act?

Damages are a legal way of describing money that is awarded by a court to an injured party.  If the injured worker is considered to be a Seaman, the Seaman may recover damages for negligence if the captain, owner or other crew member of the vessel behaved negligently and that negligence cause injury to the Seaman.

Pain and suffering damages may be awarded.  These included physical pain that the injured seaman experienced and/or emotional stress caused by the injuur.  Damages may also be awarded for medical expenses incurred as a result of the injury including medical visits, surgeries, rehabilitation expenses and surgery expenses.  The injured seaman may be entitled to money for loss of future wages and other benefits that may have been earned in the future if the injury had not occurred.

The Jones Act allows for pecuniary losses by survivors and dependents in cases that involve death and for pre-death pain and suffering.  Some Courts have decided that punitive damages are not allowed in non-death cases. What damages are available, how much and what type of evidnece that needs to be offered can be very complex in Jones Act cases.  

Injured Seaman may also be entitled to maintenence and cure benefits in addition to money damages.  In this sense, it is reasonable to conclude that an injured Seaman may be entitled to significantly more money that the typical land based injured worker.

Is negligence under the Jones Act different than negligence in other cases?

Not necessarily.  A claim can be brought by a seaman, if the employer breaches a duty of care that is owed to the seaman.  This is not all that different that the ordinary care that is owed in normal personal injury cases. However,  the employer has a broad obligation to provide a workplace that is reasonable safe. Dangerous conditions on the boat may constitute Jones Act negligence.   While some commentators assert that it is generally understood that it is easier to establish negligence under the Jones Act than other cases, some Courts have rejected this conclusion. The bottom line is that each case is different and must be evaluated based upon the facts of the case.

Where should a Seaman file a Jones Act case?

Jones Act cases can be filed in State Court or Federal Court though very often employer's attempt to remove state court actions to the Federal Courts.

Are there time limitations in a Jones Act Case?

Generally, seaman  have a three years to file a lawsuit for damages. IN other words, a seaman has three years from the date of injury/ death in order to bring a lawsuit. There are  exceptions to the 3 year statute of limitations rule. If the injuries weren't manifested or revealed until after the 3 year limitation, the statute of limitations may be “tolled”  and begin to run from the date that the injuries were discovered.

If you are a family member has been injured as a result of an accident that occurred while working on a boat or other vessel, please do not hesitate to call our office to discuss the potential of recovering damages under the Jones Act.