The Jones Act and Compensation for Injured Seamen

Crew members of ships and other vessels live a life that can be difficult for land-based workers to understand. Work on board a ship can be extremely dangerous and, following injury, it may be days before an injured worker can receive medical care.

The Jones Act recognizes the risks faced by seamen, expands upon a seaman's common law rights to support and medical care following an injury, and provides a means of recovering compensation for injuries suffered as the result of a vessel owner's negligence or failure to provide a seaworthy vessel.

What is the Jones Act

The Jones Act is the popular name for the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, a law that regulates maritime commerce.

Among the provisions of the Jones Act, the law provides for compensation for seamen who are injured as a result of the negligence of a ship owner, or based upon a claim that the vessel upon which they served was not seaworthy.

What is a Jones Act Injury Claim

Under the Jones Act, a seaman may recover compensation they are injured in the service of a vessel, regardless of whether the injury occurs on or off the ship Under the Jones Act, an injured seaman may pursue three different theories of recovery:

  • Unseaworthiness: An allegation that the shipowner failed to fulfill its absolute duty to provide every member of its crew with a seaworthy vessel, including maintaining the ship and her equipment in a proper operating condition.

  • Negligence: A claim that an shipowner's failure to exercise reasonable care caused a subsequent injury to the seaman. It is possible to succeed in a negligence claim even if the employer's negligence did not render the ship unseaworthy.

  • Maintenance and Cure: The provision of or payment for food and lodging (maintenance) as well as any necessary health-care expenses (cure) incurred during the period of recovery from an injury or malady that arises while a seaman is in service of a ship.

Maintenance and cure is a basic right of a Jones Act seaman, and it is not necessary to prove negligence or unseaworthiness in order to recover those benefits following an injury. Benefits remain payable until the injured seaman reaches the point of maximum possible recovery.

Jones Act Terminology

Within the context of maritime injury, key terminology used by the Jones act is defined in a manner that differs from its common usage:

  • Negligence: Under the Jones Act, an employer is guilty of negligence if it had notice of and opportunity to correct an unsafe condition on a vessel and the uncorrected unsafe condition contributes in any way, no matter how slight, to the injury suffered by a seaman.

  • Seaman: A seaman is a person whose employment is connected to a vessel in navigation, and who spends not less than 30% of his time on a vessel in navigation. When determining if a claimant is a seaman for purposes of the Jones Act, a court will examine the nature of the seaman's service, his status as a member of the vessel, and his relationship to the vessel and its operation in navigable waters.

  • Unseaworthy: A vessel is unseaworthy when a unsafe method of work is used to perform vessel services. To establish a claim for unseaworthiness, an injured seaman must prove that the owner of the vessel failed to provide a vessel, including her equipment and crew, that is reasonably fit and safe for the purposes for which it was intended to be used.

  • Vessel: The Jones Act defines a vessel as any watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.

Maritime workers who do not meet the definition of "seaman" may qualify for benefits under a different federal law, the Longshore and Harbor Worker's Compensation Act (LHWCA).

Seaworthiness Under the Jones Act

When people think of a vessel as unseaworthy, most people think that the term means that the vessel may sink or founder. In the context of the Jones Act, a vessel may be at no risk of sinking, but may be unseaworthy based upon its failure to provide a seaman with a safe place to work, or failure to provide appropriate equipment or facilities in which to perform that work.

It is not necessary under the Jones Act for a seaman to prove that the vessel owner knew of an unsafe condition. It is sufficient to prove that the unsafe condition existed and that it contributed to the seaman's injury. Examples of conditions that may constitute unseaworthiness under the Jones Act include:

  • Worn or broken stairs or ladders;
  • Missing handrails or guard rails;
  • Unsafe work policies and practices;
  • Unsafe, outdated, or missing safety equipment or gear;
  • Failure to inspect, repair, or update equipment;
  • Failure to properly train crewmembers;
  • Failure to provide qualified crewmembers;
  • Failure to provide adequate numbers of crewmembers;

Due to the many ways in which a vessel may be shown to be unseaworthy it is not feasible to prepare a complete list.

Negligence Under the Jones Act

In most contexts where liability results from negligence, in order to recover damages the injured party must prove that the injury suffered was reasonably foreseeable to the defendant.

Under the Jones Act, it does not matter whether the owner of a vessel reasonably anticipated that an unsafe condition could cause an injury, and negligence may be found based upon its failure to correct an unsafe condition that contributes even slightly to a seaman's injury. However, the employer must have notice and the opportunity to correct an unsafe condition before liability will attach based upon a theory of negligence.

Examples of acts that may constitute negligence include:

  • Failure to enforce or follow safety rules;
  • Failure to provide adequate medical care;
  • Failure to avoid dangerous weather or conditions;
  • Negligent hiring or supervision of the crew;
  • Assigning an untrained or unqualified crew member to operate equipment;
  • Failure to provide appropriate safety instructions, equipment or gear;
  • Failure to provide sufficient instruction relating to safety;
  • Failure to warn a seaman of a known hazard; and
  • Even an assault by another crewmember may be deemed negligence on the part of the vessel owner.

As with unseaworthiness, this list should provide a sense of the types of acts and omissions that may support a negligence claim, but a complete list would be near-endless.

Once a seaman proves an employer's negligence, to recover compensation the seaman need only show that the employer's negligence is the cause, in whole or part, of the seaman's injuries. Once negligence is established the injured seaman need only show that the employer's negligence played a part, no mater how slight, in causing the injury or death for which damages are sought.

Compensation Under the Jones Act

A worker who proves a claim for negligence or unseaworthiness may recover compensation that potentially includes:

  • Lost Wages: Compensation for past and future lost wages or reduction in earning capacity;

  • Medical Expenses: Past and future medical expenses necessary to treat the injury to the point of maximum possible recovery;

  • Pain and Suffering: Compensation for the physical pain and emotional distress caused by the injury;

Damages in a Jones Act case are awarded on the basis of comparative negligence. Thus, for compensation other than maintenance and cure, an injured seaman's recovery may be reduced in proportion to the seaman's own negligence in relation to the cause of the injury. For example, the financial recovery of a seaman who is found to be 25% at fault for causing the injury will be reduced by 25%.

If a seaman is killed, the seaman's family may be able to recover damages from the vessel owner, including compensation for loss of support and services. An injured seaman who is wrongly denied maintenance and cure may attempt to recover attorney fees incurred in obtaining those benefits. If the seaman proves that the denial of maintenance and cure results from the callous or willful and wanton withholding of those benefits by the employer, the seaman may be able to recover punitive damages.

What Should a Seaman Do After an Injury

In order to preserve a claim for compensation under the Jones Act, a seaman who is injured in the service of a vessel should:

  • Promptly Report the Injury: A seaman must report a work-related injury to the employer within seven days of its occurrence, but it is best for the injured seaman to report the injury as soon as possible after it occurs.

  • Be Wary of Signing Documents: An employee who makes a Jones Act claim can expect to be asked to prepare an accident report, detailing how an injury occurred and who was at fault for the injury. A seaman is not required to complete a report before becoming eligible for compensation under the Jones Act, and should consider getting legal advice before preparing or submitting a report or any other document requested by the employer or an insurance company.

  • Consult a Lawyer: An injured seaman should consult a maritime injury lawyer before settling a claim under the Jones Act. The consultation will be free, and the lawyer can help verify that any settlement offer made to an injured seaman is fair. Consultation comes with no further obligation so, should the seaman choose to do so, even after a consultation the seaman may settle the case without retaining the lawyer and without paying any legal fees.

  • Seek Medical Care: It is important that an injured seaman obtain appropriate treatment and follow-up care for any injury.

Injured seamen should be aware that they may choose their own doctor following a Jones Act injury. They do not need to go to the doctor preferred by their employer or by its insurance company.

For minor injuries, a worker may opt to settle a claim without involving a lawyer. But for injuries that are more serious, or that prevent return to work, it makes sense to at least consult a lawyer before settling.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.