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What Is the Jones Act? Understanding Your Rights and Benefits as an Offshore Worker

Accidents at Sea

You can’t help worrying about a relative who works at sea. You know how dangerous the work is: the long hours, the potential for illnesses, the stories of crewmen falling overboard—it’s almost too much for a family at home to bear. Your only consolation is that if your loved one does suffer an accident, he will receive the best of care, while you all recover together. But, where can you turn if the worst happens? What do you do if a seaman, your seaman,  is badly injured and his employer refuses to pay for his medical bills?


What is the Jones Act?

The Jones Act creates benefits for sailors which are very, very powerful.  Seaman are entitled to maintenance and cure. Which means your employer must pay you a daily stipend and provide medical care to treat your injuries. In addition, you can also sue for damages if your injuries were caused by Jones Act negligence on the part of the ship's owners or other crew members.  Or if the vessel was unseaworthy.   These damages include death benefits, in the event that Seaman are killed while in the service of the vessel.

In essence, the Jones Act provides you powerful remedies under maritime law against your employers for injuries arising from negligent acts of the employer or co-workers.  Jones Act negligence has a “feather weight causation standard.”  The vessel is liable for your injuries if it is unseaworthy.   No other worker in America has these powerful rights and remedies.


What is a Jones Act Vessel?

The Jones Act protects crew members of a vessel when they are injured.  If it floats and you work on it, then it probably qualifies as a Jones Act vessel. The Jones Act applies to inland river workers and offshore crew members who work on the following types of vessels:

drill ships
crew boats
floating cranes
cruise ships
recreational boats
cargo ships
fishing vessels
chemical ships
research vessels
construction barges
diving vessels
crab processing barges
floating work platforms
supply boats
tub boats
party boats
sport fishing boats
fishing boats
auto carriers
casino boats
drilling rig


What Are the Worker’s Compensation Benefits of the Jones Act?

The first thing the Jones Act can do for an injured seaman is to provide worker’s comp benefits such as payment for medical bills and daily income supplements. Specifically, you should receive:

  • Medical Care. Your employer is required to pay for any reasonable medical treatment for any conditions you suffer as a result of your service to your vessel. These benefits should continue until you have reached maximum medical stability.


  • Maintenance. Injured seamen may receive a daily stipend while they are receiving medical care for an injury. In most cases, this amount is between 15 and 30 dollars a day, depending on the specifics of your case.


What Kinds of Damages Could I Be Awarded If I Win a Jones Act Case?

Damages awarded to injured seaman under the Jones Act are similar to those in a personal injury case, such as:

  • Past lost wages and lost income opportunities
  • Loss of earning capacity due to disability
  • Past and future medical expenses
  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Disfigurement or deformity
  • Interest charges, if payments were unnecessarily delayed
  • Wrongful death, if the seaman was killed in the course of his duties

It is important to act quickly if you or a member of your family has been injured in a maritime accident. Under the provisions of the Jones Act, you must file a claim against your employer within three years from the date of your injury—otherwise, you could permanently lose your right to compensation.


Does the Jones Act Allow Me to Sue My Employer?

In some cases, medical care and a small amount of daily income will not be enough to compensate an injured worker. That is what makes the Jones Act different from other worker’s compensation laws: it allows an employee to sue for damages if your injuries were caused by negligence.

Boats, platforms, and other vessels are notoriously less safe than typical working environments, The Jones Act says that any maritime employer has a special duty to provide a safe working environment for its employees, including:

  • Maintaining the vessel to make sure it is in reasonably safe condition.
  • Protecting its employees from any dangerous acts on behalf of the ship’s owners, captain, crew members, or other coworkers.
  • Providing proper training to all employees and reinforcing safe work practices.
  • Ensuring that the vessel is seaworthy.
  • Keeping decks free of debris and clear of spills that can cause trip or fall hazards.
  • Providing employees with the proper equipment (including safety devices) for them to perform their work.
  • Assuming responsibility for assault on an employee by a coworker.
  • Attempting to rescue a seaman who has fallen overboard or to search for a lost seaman for as long as he could reasonably be alive in the water.

In order to recover damages for negligence, a seaman must be able to show a clear breach of safety on behalf of his employer, and that the oversight resulted in the worker’s injury. Unlike regular worker’s compensation laws, the seaman needs to show only that employer negligence was somehow at fault for his injury, rather than directly and wholly responsible for the accident.


Seaman Status:

Briefly, if you spend at least 30% of your time on a vessel in navigation (or an identifiable fleet of vessels); then you probably qualify for “Seaman Status.”  Meaning, you qualify for powerful Seaman’s rights and remedies.   You don’t have to be a “Blue Water Seaman” in order to have Seaman Status.  There are many “Brown Water Seaman.”  And many Seaman that spend the night in their own bed at night. 

Everyone that works aboard vessels may qualify as a Seaman.  Including, all staff on board ship, from the Captain down to the mess helper. Generally, benefits provided by the Jones Act may be significantly higher than benefits for land based workers.

The U.S. Congress adopted the Merchant Marine Act in 1920, formerly 46 U.S.C. § 688 and codified on October 6, 2006 as 46 U.S.C. § 30104. The Act formalized the rights of seaman which have been recognized for centuries.

"From the very beginning of American civilization, courts have protected seaman whom the courts have described as 'unprotected and in need of counsel; because they are thoughtless and require indulgence; because they are credulous and complying; and are easily overreached. They are emphatically the wards of admiralty.'" Capitol Hill Hearing Testimony, Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee; Testimony by John Hickley, attorney at law. Congressional Quarterly. March 27, 2007.

The Jones Act allows you, an injured Seaman, to obtain damages from your employer for the negligence of the ship owner, the captain, or fellow members of the crew.  The Jones Act extends similar legislation already in place that allows for recoveries by railroad workers. Its operative provision is found at 46 U.S.C. § 688(a), which provides:

"Any sailor who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment may, at his election, maintain an action for damages at law, with the right to trial by jury, and in such action all statutes of the United States modifying or extending the common-law right or remedy in cases of personal injury to railway employees shall apply..."

This allows you to bring actions against your ship owner based on claims of unseaworthiness or negligence.


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William Turley
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