The Jones Act is a maritime law enacted by Congress that provides protection to persons who are members of the crew of a vessel. This law applies to inland river workers as well as offshore workers who work on jackups, semi-submersibles, lay barges, drill ships, tugs, towboats, crew boats, tankers, cargo ships, fishing vessels, chemical ships, research vessels, diving vessels, cruise ships or other floating, movable structures.
The Jones Act is an Act of Congress, which governs the liability of vessel operators and marine employers for the work-related injury or death of an employee. It is a federal cause of action, meaning that the United States Congress intended for all seamen’s injuries throughout the nation to be guided by the same liability standards. Although the Jones Act protects seamen, it is not the same as workers’ compensation. It does not require payment regardless of fault. In order for a worker to recover under the Jones Act, a worker must prove some negligence or fault on the part of the vessel’s owners, operators, officers, and/or fellow employees or by reason of any defect in the vessel, its gear, tackle, or equipment. The Jones Act provides an injured seaman a remedy against his or her employers for injuries arising from negligent acts of the employer or co-workers during the course of employment on a vessel. This means that the employer must do something unreasonable or fail to perform a reasonable act that would have prevented injury in order for the seaman to win his claim.
Claims brought under the Jones Act can also be against a vessel’s owner that a vessel was unseaworthy.
One of the central questions in any maritime injury case is whether the injured party is a seaman, since only a seaman can recover under the Jones Act. A seaman is a member of the crew of a vessel or someone who is assigned to a vessel or a fleet of vessels. For example, those who work on tankers, freighters, jack-up rigs, semi-submersibles, towboats, tugs, supply boats, crew boats, barges, lay barges and fishing vessels are members of the crew and are considered seamen. Those who are crewmembers on movable or jack-up drilling rigs are seamen. Officers and crew are all considered seamen. Longshoremen, pilots, and those who work on fixed platforms are not seamen, but have other maritime remedies available for their injuries. Often there is a dispute as to seamen status and whether the seaman was working on a vessel when he was injured. It is very important to allow the maritime attorney to study the facts surrounding the accident and the "vessel" to help make the determination of seaman status.
The essential requirements for seaman status are:
(a). An employee’s duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission;
(b). A seaman must have a connection with a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels), that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature;
(c). The duration of a worker’s connection to a vessel and the nature of the worker’s activities, taken together, determine whether a maritime worker is a seaman because the ultimate inquiry is whether the worker in question is a member of the vessel’s crew or simply a land-based employee who happens to be working on a vessel at a given time.
(d). A distinction must be made between sea-based workers and land-based workers who have only a transitory or sporadic connection to a vessel in navigation. Land-based maritime workers do not become seamen because they happen to be working aboard a vessel when they are injured, and seamen do not lose Jones Act protection where the course of their service to a vessel takes them ashore. In evaluating the employment-related connection of a maritime worker to a vessel in navigation, courts should not employ a "snapshot" test for seamen status, inspecting only the situation as it exists at the instant of injury; but rather, the total circumstances of an individual’s employment must be weighed to determine whether he has a sufficient relation to the vessel.
(e). Jones Act coverage (seaman status) depends not on the place where the injury is inflicted, but on the nature of the seaman’s service, his status as a member of the vessel, and his relationship as such to the vessel and its operation in navigable waters.
If a seaman becomes injured on a vessel, regardless of the fault of the vessel or its operators, his or her legal remedy is called maintenance and cure. "Maintenance" is a small daily compensation designed to provide the food and shelter that would have been provided to the seaman while aboard the vessel. Today, maintenance rates range from $7 to $35 per day. "Cure" is the obligation of the seaman’s employer to provide medical treatment, prescription drugs, nursing services, hospitalization, rehab and therapy, until the seaman reaches maximum medical improvement. Maximum medical improvement means that the seaman’s condition will not improve any further or he is permanently disabled. When a seaman reaches maximum medical improvement, the vessel owner’s obligation to pay maintenance and cure ceases, regardless of whether the seaman can return to work or not. The seaman has a right to his choice of physicians and does not have to accept treatment by his employer’s choice of physician. If an employer refuses to pay maintenance and cure, the employer can be held liable for damages and attorneys’ fees.
The vessel owner owes the seaman a strict and absolute duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. A seaworthy vessel is one that is reasonably fit for its intended use, it should be a safe place to work and live. A seaworthy vessel should be equipped with appropriate safety gear and equipment, safe recreation facilities, and a competent crew. The duty owed to a seaman is more rigorous than the seaworthiness promised in a contract for the carriage of marine cargo. In addition to holding a seaman’s employer responsible for the negligent acts of its employees and officers, a seaman can recover if he can prove that the vessel was unseaworthy and that he was injured as a result. A vessel that is unseaworthy does not mean that it is in danger of sinking. A vessel is unseaworthy if a piece of equipment breaks or is inoperable, the vessel’s crew is too small or incomplete, not adequately trained, or a condition such as oil, grease or rust exists where it is not intended to exist and the unseaworthy condition is a direct cause of injury to the seaman. In other words, negligence focuses on acts of the seaman’s employer, and unseaworthiness focuses on the condition or inadequacy of the vessel itself. Unlike the Jones Act claims, which is against the seaman’s employer, an unseaworthiness claim is made against the vessel’s owner. In many cases those actions will be against the same party. An unseaworthiness claim will bring the owner into a lawsuit as an additional source of recovery for the seaman. As with the Jones Act, an unseaworthiness claim must be filed within three years of the injury, and must be combined with a Jones Act claim.
The Statute of Limitations in a Jones Act case is generally three (3) years from the date of the injury. There are exceptions to this general rule, such as seaman assigned to vessel owned, operated, or contracted by the United States government. Actions against the vessel owner for unseaworthiness, must also be brought within three (3) years from the date of the seaman’s injury.
An injured worker under the Jones Act can recover the following legal damages:
If an injury causes the death of a seaman, the surviving widow or husband and children of the employee become the beneficiaries under the Jones Act. If the worker does not have a spouse or children, then the beneficiaries include the employee’s parents. A personal representative such as an executor is entitled to bring an action that the worker (had he lived) would have possessed against his employer. The worker’s cause of action against the employer does not die with the worker. In death cases, damages go to the seaman’s survivors.
If injured, there are a few very important steps that you must take in order to protect your legal rights to recover under the Jones Act in the future. These are as follows:
Mr. Willis is a Board Certified Personal Injury Trial Lawyer, certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and practices only personal injury trial law. Attorney David Willis never has and never will represent a corporation or insurance company. He is damn proud to represent the injured worker!
If you have a question regarding your Jones Act, maritime personal injury claim or the wrongful death of a friend or family member, call and talk to an experienced offshore maritime injury attorney now.