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The Jones Act: Maritime Workers' Rights


Prior to the passage of the Seamen’s Act of 1915 and widespread unionization efforts in the early twentieth century, maritime laborers often worked in horrific conditions, subject to the whim of authoritarian captains and harsh criminal penalties for disobeying orders. Captains were free to enact corporeal punishment, including executions and marooning, as late as the 1890s.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known today as the Jones Act, formally guarantees the rights of seamen set forth in the Seamen’s Act of 1915. Even in the twenty-first century, seamen work in more dangerous conditions than most- though marooning is no longer an option for frustrated captains.

Because traditional workers’ compensation is not covered by international maritime law, injured seamen must file claims under the Jones Act, which allows qualifying personal injury victims to file a civil suit against their employer or the ship owner for negligence, unseaworthy vessels, or “no fault” work-related injuries.

The Jones Act differs from the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) in that the Jones Act only covers qualifying sea-bound workers, while the LHWCA covers most land-based workers employed in traditional maritime occupations, such as longshoreman, ship-repairers, shipbuilders, and harbor construction workers.

To file a claim under the Jones Act, personnel must meet specific criteria:

  • A qualifying seaman is any crew member that contributes to the function of a vessel, which is not strictly limited to navigational positions. Seamen can include sailors, engineers, radio operators, firemen, pursers, surgeons, cooks, and stewards.
  • Injuries must occur while on navigable waters, including rivers, oceans, inland lakes shared by multiple states or connected to other navigable bodies of water. In general, navigable waters covers any waterway used for legal commerce. The vessel does not necessarily have to be on the move either; floating is considered in navigation as long as the vessel is carrying out its purpose, excluding being refit or repaired on a drydock.
  • As a rule of thumb, crew members must spend at least thirty percent of their time on a vessel.

What injuries can maritime workers file a claim for under the Jones Act?

Qualifying seamen sustaining work-related injuries or illnesses can file claims citing negligence, liability for unseaworthy vessels, and the right to maintenance and cure or “no-fault” benefits. Injures a seaman or their dependents may receive compensation for include but are not limited to drowning, hypothermia, physical and sexual assault, head injuries, lost limbs or amputation, repetitive use injuries, shoulder injuries, and slip or trip and falls. Workers may even collect compensation or “no-fault” benefits for illnesses such as pneumonia if the condition is work-related.

If a worker is injured as the result of their employer’s or coworkers’ risky behaviors or by substandard vessel conditions and files a claim for negligence or liability for unseaworthy vessels, they may be entitled to economic andnon-economic losses, including medical expenses, lost wages, diminished earning capacity, and pain and suffering.

Unlike the aforementioned claims, right to maintenance and cure claims do not take into consideration employer conduct. These “no-fault” benefits are calculated based on daily living expenses and continue until workers heal to the fullest extent possible, meaning these benefits do not cover permanent damage. However, “no-fault” benefits can be collected in addition to economic and non-economic losses won for negligence or unseaworthiness liability.

Though the Jones Act entitles maritime workers to file a claim within three years from the date of injury, do not wait!To maximize the compensation you deserve, call our attorneys at Crane Flores, LLP anytime, day or night at (805) 628-4967.