Uncharted Waters: A Guide to the Jones Act

Jad J. Stepp

Did you know that by law, ships transporting goods between U.S. ports are owned, built, and operated by American citizens or permanent residents of the United States? The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, dictates these rules as well as the laws governing and protecting the crew of these merchant marine ships.

Seaman’s rights had existed for centuries, but the Jones act solidified and codified them. When seamen were injured or killed on their vessels, their employers rarely took responsibility. They also did not have recourse when these incidents occurred.

The Jones act defined what a seaman is and allowed these workers to bring legal action against their employers when injured due to negligence or unseaworthiness.

How Does the Jones Act Define a Seaman?

Under the Jones Act, a seaman is a person who spends more than 30 percent of their time in service of the ship on navigable waters. The definition of a ship is relatively broad: it includes fishing boats, ferries, container ships, barges, and tankers. Duties in service of the ship apply to the ship’s function or in aid to its mission.

Dock workers and land-based ship support generally do not qualify for Jones Act protections; those workers’ injuries fall under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). These employees are shipbuilders, ship breakers, dock workers, and harbor staff that work on piers, wharves, and dry docks.

Five Wide-Ranging Benefits of the Jones Act

The Jones Act not only protects seamen; it also protects the country in several less obvious ways. Here are five ways the Jones Act positively impacts the United States:

Control in Case of Emergency

In times of national emergency, the Act guarantees safe and reliable transportation of people and goods between domestic ports and offshore communities. 

Skilled Labor

In times of war, the Act assures skilled labor for shipbuilding and ship technology workers by Americans.

Revenue

Freight revenues by foreign-owned carriers and shipyards are not subject to taxes, but domestic revenues are.

Environmental Standards

Because the shipyards and ships are American-only owned and operated, they comply with American standards, liability, and enforcement.

Nation-wide Advantages

Every state benefits from the Jones Act, from coastal ports to inland barges and waterways. 

Merchant Mariner Injury

Seamen are also called merchant mariners. There are several types of injuries that a seaman can sustain while serving a ship and its mission. The environment is high-risk, although the work is rewarding and often well-compensated.

Here are some common injuries that a merchant mariner can experience:

Falling Overboard

This situation is dangerous for the victim and the rescuers. Falling into cold water causes hypothermia, pneumonia, and other dangers, while rescue efforts can be hazardous in rough or freezing waters.

Slipping and Falling

It doesn’t sound particularly dangerous, but on a ship, it can cost a seaman their life. They can fall overboard, sustain concussions, break bones, and incur spinal injuries.

Chemical Burns and Exposure

Engine rooms are enclosed spaces, and without adequate ventilation they become hot and stuffy. With these circumstances can come chemical burns, asphyxia, and risk of poisoning.

Repetitive Use Injuries

A seaman’s duties can include repetitive motions performed over long periods. Nerves degrade and employee risks limiting or losing the use of their feet, legs, hips, and ankles.

How Does the Jones Act Protect Seamen?

This law allows merchant mariners to seek legal action when they become injured on the job. They cannot sue for injuries’ sake; they can only sue due to negligence on the part of their employer.

Some common examples of negligence covered under the Jones Act are:

  • Lack of preliminary and thorough safety training
  • Lack of equipment and parts maintenance
  • Lack of equipment repair
  • Shortage of safety gear
  • Inadequate warning signage
  • Lack of non-skid surfaces
  • Failure to maintain the vessel’s seaworthiness

Jones Act Compensation

There are three types of compensation that the Jones Act can provide for an injured worker: loss of earnings, medical expenses, and pain and suffering.

Loss of earnings is extensive coverage that includes present and future earnings capacity, occupation advancements, pay raises, and benefits. This determination requires the help of an economics professional to calculate these numbers.

Medical expense coverage also includes present expenses and anticipated future expenses that include complete coverage and travel, specialized equipment, physical therapy and rehabilitation, and counseling.

Pain and suffering compensation covers both physical pain and mental anguish. With severe injury can come post-traumatic stress disorder, which needs treatment by a mental health professional. Judges determine this compensation on a case-by-case basis.

Punitive damages can be awarded in some cases of extreme negligence or intentional actions on the part of an employer.

In Case of Maritime Injury

This post is an overview of the Jones Act and how it protects the rights of seamen injured on the job. It is far more specific in its scope and coverage, so it is wise to grasp as much of the detail as you can.

If you are a merchant mariner and you suffer an injury that you think applies under the Jones Act, contact a maritime lawyer who can help you navigate the system and get you the compensation that you need. Understanding your legal options is a complex process, and there is no need to try and do it yourself.

Fill out our contact form, and we will be happy to consult with you or your family about your rights and entitlement. Your injury comes first, and it is up to us to help you.

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