Understanding Your Rights Under The Jones Act

The Jones Act is an important maritime federal law that provides compensation rights to those who have been injured or developed an illness while working aboard or in connection to a vessel. Vessels that qualify under the Act include all types of ships and boats, such as container and cargo ships, cruise ships, casino boats, fishing, factory trawlers, crabbing boats and charter boats; offshore drilling rigs, drilling ships and production platforms; tankers, barges, tugboats and ferries.

In order to be entitled to compensation under the Jones Act, three criteria must be met:

  • The individual must meet the definition of a "seaman"
  • The individual must sustain the injury or develop the illness during the course of his or her employment
  • The individual's injury or illness must result from negligence on the part of his or her employer or other employee

Given the heightened risk of serious injury these types of workers are exposed to every day, the Jones Act provides not only important, but essential legal remedies to sailors, crewmembers, oil riggers and other vessel workers who suffer harm as a result of their work.

Who may bring a Jones Act claim?

The Act provides protection only to those who are considered "seamen." The Jones Act defines a seaman as "an individual (except scientific personnel, a sailing school instructor, or a sailing school student) engaged or employed in any capacity on board a vessel" (46 USC Section 10101(3)).

In determining whether an individual qualifies as a seaman under the Act, courts generally ask whether the individual's work contributes to a function of the ship or the accomplishment of the vessel's objectives or missions. Courts also consider the duration and nature of the individual's connection to the vessel.

In general, contract workers, longshoreman and harbor workers cannot bring Jones Act claims; however, they may be entitled to bring legal claims under other maritime laws for their injuries.

Which injuries are compensable under the Act?

Any injury that occurs as a result of the negligence of the vessel owner or another employee is compensable under the Jones Act so long as the injury occurred during the scope of the seaman's employment. Injuries that occurred off of a ship or other vessel may be covered, depending on what the seaman was doing at the time of the injury.

Vessel owners have a duty to maintain the safety of their vessels and any equipment onboard the vessel that may be used by employees. When this duty is breached and a seaman is injured as a result, the ship owner is liable for the injury.

Seamen are not barred recovery under the Jones Act if they are partially at fault for the accident or incident causing their injuries. Vessel owners can be held liable for the injuries even if their role in the injury is marginal. However, the ultimate amount of damages recovered by the seaman may be reduced in proportion to the amount of his or her liability for the injury.

What types of compensation are available?

There are several types of compensation that may be available under the Jones Act and general maritime law. These include: Maintenance and cure

  • Maintenance refers to payment of room, board and wages from the time the seaman leaves the ship until he or she returns to work or reaches "maximum medical improvement" i.e. when the condition will no longer improve with continued medical treatment. Under general maritime law, employers are required to pay a weekly subsistence rate to workers to cover basic daily living expenses for items like rent, food, utilities and transportation costs.
  • Cure refers to payment of reasonable medical expenses to treat the injury or illness. The payments begin at the time of the injury and continue until the seaman reaches maximum medical improvement.
Unseaworthiness

The vessel owner has a duty to maintain the ship in a seaworthy, or safe, manner and to ensure that those employed on the vessel have a safe working environment. If the vessel, masters, crew or equipment on the vessel are found to be unseaworthy, then the seaman is entitled to additional compensation above the amounts for maintenance and cure. This compensation may include damages for pain and suffering, loss or impairment of earning capacity and other reasonable losses attributable to the injury or illness and unseaworthy condition of the ship.

Punitive damages

In some cases, injured seamen also may be entitled to punitive damages if an employer wrongfully refuses to pay maintenance and cure. For example, in the 2009 case Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, the US Supreme Court held that punitive damages are available in cases when vessel owners willfully withhold payment of maintenance and cure.

Wrongful death claims

Family members have the right to bring a wrongful death action under the Jones Act in cases when a loved one dies as result of his or her work injury or illness. Just as with other claims under the Jones Act, the seaman's death must have occurred during the course of his or her employment in connection with the vessel and as a result of negligence on the part of the employer.

Contact an experienced maritime attorney today

If you were injured while working aboard a ship or other vessel, you may be able to bring a legal claim for damages under the Jones Act or other federal maritime law. Under the Jones Act, you generally only have three years from the date of injury to bring your claim.

Do not accept any settlement offers from your employer or insurance company until you have spoken with an attorney. You are unlikely to receive a fair settlement offer from them - especially if you do not know the true value of your claim. For more information, contact an experienced maritime attorney.

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