Unfortunately, federal and state workers’ compensation laws are tailored to land-based employees and often exclude individuals who earn their living as seamen. Because of this, maritime workers injured at sea or on other waterways must rely on the Jones Act and other maritime law.
What is the Jones Act?
The Jones Act is more formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. It is perhaps best known for requiring that vessels carrying goods between U.S. ports be:
- U.S.-built, U.S.-owned and U.S.-registered and
- Crewed primarily by U.S. citizens.
Equally important, however, is Title 46 of the U.S. Code which allows seamen to “bring a civil action” against their employer for damages if they are injured while working at sea. The Jones Act also allows family members to request compensation if a seaman is killed during maritime service.
Who is covered by the Jones Act?
For workers’ compensation, the Jones Act focuses on three main issues: negligence, seamen and vessels.
- What qualifies as employer negligence? The Jones Act allows for civil actions based on negligence. The negligence may be on the part of the vessel owner and in some cases the captain or fellow employees. The negligence must also be associated with the vessel’s work-related mission.
- Who qualifies as a seaman or sailor? The Jones Act covers seamen and their survivors but fails to define the term seaman. In 1995, the Supreme Court determined that the term seaman covers any employee who spends at least 30 percent of their time in the service of a vessel on navigable waters. Typically, seamen are documented crewmen serving on a vessel. However, the criteria for who qualifies as a seaman remains a debatable issue.
- What qualifies as a vessel on navigable waters? Similarly, the Jones Act failed to define its vessel requirements. For a long time, barges or other floats qualified only if they were in actual navigation or transit. However, the most current interpretation of the term vessel in navigation includes “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” For offshore platforms, qualifying as a vessel on navigable waters remains a cloudy issue subject to interpretation.
Additional Considerations. If a person cannot claim U.S. citizenship or permanent residency at the time of injury or death, making a claim under the Jones Act can become even more complex, especially if:
- the employee worked for an enterprise that was exploring, developing or producing offshore mineral or energy resources;
- the incident happened while the vessel was in non-U.S. territorial waters; or
- the employee can demonstrate that no remedy was available either in the jurisdiction where the incident occurred or in the employee’s country of citizenship or residency.
What damages are recoverable under the act?
The legal language in the Jones Act allows for civil action—a lawsuit—with the right of trial by jury. This means that a jury hears the case and determines the level of compensation deserved.
Items recoverable under the Jones Act are listed as maintenance and cure as well as damages. These commonly translate into claims for past, present and future damages:
- Medical expenses. This includes costs for both immediate treatment and future care as well as expenses.
- Lost wages. You can recover wages lost from the time of injury and during treatment.
- Ability to earn. You may be owed damages if your injury results in a permanent disability or inability to work.
- Physical pain and mental suffering. Damages may be due for both physical pain as well as psychological issues resulting from the maritime injury.
- Loss of enjoyment of life. Physical injuries, psychological problems and disabilities have effects that extend beyond the workplace and may be eligible for additional compensation.
- Interest on those losses.
If The Jones Act Does Not Apply, What Does?
The Jones Act offers qualifying seamen many important protections. However, it also recognizes a complex “uncertainty zone” that leaves much to a court’s interpretation.
Sometimes, if you do not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act, you may be able to file for damages under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). The LHWCA covers land-based maritime workers and more closely resembles state workers compensation. Depending on the facts of your case, state law or the general maritime law may also apply.
If you have been hurt while working in the maritime industry or have a family member who has been injured, reach out to the attorneys at Johnstone Carroll LLC. We have many years of experience representing clients who have been injured in oil rig accidents across Alabama and the Gulf of Mexico. Whether your injury was a result of company negligence, malfunctioning equipment, or a slip and fall accident, we can help you seek just compensation from the party at fault. Navigating through the complex areas of Alabama’s personal injury laws, workers compensation regulations and maritime laws is our area of expertise. We are compassionate towards your losses in wages, earning capacity, medical expenses, pain and suffering. Let’s work together in developing a strategy for pursuing justice in your personal injury case. To speak with one of our attorneys about your offshore injury claim, contact our office at 205-509-1226 or fill out our convenient online contact form.
The articles on this blog are for informative purposes only and are no substitute for legal advice or an attorney/client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact our law firm directly.