What Is Covered Under the Jones Act?

Passed into law a century ago, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (aka the “Jones Act”) is the most important legal protection granted to U.S. civilian seamen. It covers a few different legal questions, but the most important one for workers is the right to sue employers or vessel owners for negligence after an offshore injury.

However, the Jones Act doesn’t apply to every offshore worker. Per the law, there’s a three-point status test to determine who’s covered by the Jones Act. To qualify for the Jones Act, a worker must qualify as a seaman under the law. Jones Act seamen are defined via a status test regarding vessel assignment, contribution, and connection.

Put into its simplest terms, an individual is covered by the Jones Act if they meet all the following criteria:

  • Work as a seaman on a vessel in navigation (i.e. an active vessel)
  • Contribute to the vessel’s functioning
  • Exclusively work on a single vessel or fleet

Put simply, a Jones Act seaman is a person who spends most of their time working on a vessel in navigation. Anyone who qualifies as a “Jones Act seaman” can file a claim for an injury caused by the negligence of the owner of the vessel, master, fellow crewmember, or employer. They may also have grounds to pursue a claim if they can prove that their injury was caused by poor vessel conditions, i.e. “unseaworthiness.”

Does the Jones Act Only Help Workers Out at Sea?

Because many workers hear of the Jones Act during cases involving serious offshore injuries, most don’t know that the Jones Act applies to workers employed on a vessel even when it isn’t out at sea. Jones Act seamen can work in a harbor on a tugboat, in a channel on a dredging vessel, or even on barges. If you’re employed on a vessel in any way, you might be protected by the Jones Act.

If you aren’t covered under the Jones Act, you might be covered by another maritime law. An offshore accident lawyer will be able to review your case and determine your best options.

Determining If You Work on a Jones Act Vessel

Historically, the most complicated aspect of some Jones Act claims doesn’t have to do with whether a person is a Jones Act seaman. Instead, some confusion existed over what makes a vessel “in navigation” and thus under the Jones Act.

In 2005, the Supreme Court helped clarify what made a vessel qualify for the Jones Act after an injured crewmember of a dredging vessel had his claim denied in a lower court. The lower court determined that the worker did not qualify for the Jones Act because the vessel he worked focused on dredging rather than navigation. The Supreme Court overturned this ruling. It decided that the dredging vessel, and others like it, qualify for the Jones Act because of their ability to navigate.

Simply put, a Jones Act vessel is one that:

  • Floats
  • Is in operation
  • Can move
  • Is in navigable waters

In other words, this decision made it easier for offshore workers to make a Jones Act claim in instances where their legal rights might have been doubted. Today, crews of all types of ships don’t have to worry about the specific job their vessel accomplishes. Instead, they can work knowing that the Jones Act applies to them just as much as it applies to large ships navigating through open waters.

The Jones Act vs. Maintenance-and-Cure

The maritime industry has one of the oldest laws designed to protect injured workers: maintenance and cure. Maintenance and cure means injured seamen must receive compensation for living costs (maintenance) and for medical care until they are healed as much as possible (cure). Notably, maintenance and cure doesn’t require either party to prove fault—it only requires the injured party to have been working on the ship at the time of their accident.

While maintenance and cure is an important protection for seamen, it fails to help offshore workers who sustained career-ending injuries or were killed because of employer negligence. In these situations, the Jones Act is the only real recourse available to offshore workers.

When Is Jones Act Coverage Required?

Since the Jones Act deals with providing seamen with financial relief after an injury at work, many seamen confuse it with insurance coverage, similar to workers’ compensation or maintenance-and-cure. However, the Jones Act is not insurance coverage. Instead, it provides offshore workers with the right to hold their employers accountable for negligence or unseaworthy vessels.

The Jones Act should be viewed as legal safety net for workers rather than a kind of insurance coverage. Because of the Jones Act, employers have a legal and financial incentivize to prioritize safety on their vessels.

Is My Company Offering a Settlement Because of the Jones Act?

No. If a company offers a settlement after an accident, it might be looking to shield itself from the accountability provided by the Jones Act. Once a worker signs and accepts a settlement, they’ll be unable to use the Jones Act to pursue their company for fair compensation. If your company offers you a settlement, you should always speak with our offshore accident lawyers to determine if it’s fair. Often, an offshore injury firm can help you recover damages and receive compensation that extends far beyond an initial settlement offer.

Your Right to Recovery Under the Jones Act

Jones Act seamen benefit from the strongest maritime protections in American law. It allows injured seamen (or their families) to sue vessel owners or offshore employers for accidents caused by negligence or poor ship maintenance. If the jury sides with the plaintiff, seamen could recover compensation for medical bills, lost wages, long-term healthcare costs, diminished earning capacity, and more. The power of the Jones Act also means employers are likelier to make a settlement proportional to an injured worker’s losses.

However, none of this is guaranteed. Companies don’t settle with seamen voluntarily—at least not for what workers actually need. Employers and vessel owners have to be compelled to settle or taken to court, and for that, you need a strong and experienced advocate. That’s who Arnold & Itkin LLP is.

Our Jones Act firm has recovered over $20 billion for plaintiffs against the biggest companies in the world: BP, Shell, Exxon, TOTE Maritime, and others. If you’re not sure about your status under the Jones Act, speak with us in a free consultation to discuss your legal options.

Call (888) 346-5024 to get started, or contact us online.

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