Why the Flag of a Vessel Matters for Workers Injured at Sea

Understanding how your nationality or the flag of your vessel can affect your ability to file an injury claim starts with understanding the Jones Act and why it was created.

Accidents can and often do happen to fishermen, oil rig workers, cruise ship crew members, and other offshore workers. Yet, for many years, injured offshore workers couldn’t recover the compensation that they needed to recover from their injuries. While the centuries-old concept of maintenance and cure meant that workers could recover part of their injuries, the aged maritime law failed to help them get the full compensation they needed.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act, regulates many topics related to maritime commerce and travel in U.S. waters. When it was passed, it provided many of the same rights onshore workers enjoyed to those who work offshore. Importantly, the Jones Act created something that had never been a major influence in the American maritime industry: accountability.

This legislation provides specific coverage for those who have been injured at sea to seek out compensation from negligent parties. Additionally, family members of those killed at sea can seek out recoveries under this law.

The Jones Act & the Law of the Flag

Seamen may not be aware of the impact that a vessel's flag may have on their claim under the Jones Act. The Jones Act only covers American vessels and does not apply to ships that are made in a foreign country or are considered foreign in any way.

There are many factors that determine which country's jurisdiction a vessel falls under, but a major one is called the Law of the Flag. This refers to the principle that crewmen and passengers on a vessel are subject to the laws of the country corresponding to the flag flown by a vessel.

Flying a flag other than the American flag can easily label a ship as foreign and can thus interfere with the coverage of its crew under the Jones Act. For instance, if a cruise ship is operated out of Panama and sinks at sea due to negligence, American crewmembers on board may not have grounds to seek out compensation under the Jones Act, even if they set sail from a port located in America.

Can Foreign Seamen Take Advantage of United States Law?

Legal scholars often note that the Jones Act was purposely designed to be vague and open to interpretation. Creators of this legislation did so to make sure it applies to a variety of situations and can stay relevant with the times.

It is not just the flag of a vessel that can affect an injured offshore worker's ability to bring a claim under American maritime law. Even if a person is injured aboard an American flagged vessel in American navigable waters, they can still potentially be denied coverage if they're not legally an American citizen.

As a result of the Jones Act’s openness to interpretation, courts have defined who qualifies as a seaman under it as anyone who works on a vessel, regardless of their nationality. This means that foreign workers on American vessels might qualify for benefits associated with the Jones Act.

In fact, one of the earliest cases to question who qualified for the Jones Act based on nationality occurred just four years after the law was created. In 1924, Stewart v. Pacific Steam Navigation Co. involved an injured British seaman who was injured on the deck of an American vessel in the Panama Canal. Ultimately, the British man was able to receive compensation, regardless of his nationality and despite his vessel being outside of United States waters.

Offshore Workers Should Be Cautious of the Vessels They Board

In some cases, the Jones Act and other general maritime law may be the only way for an injured seaman or offshore worker to receive compensation for their injuries. Therefore, it is important to know what country's flag is flying over the vessel which you board. The crew of vessels operating under a foreign flag risk losing potential claims after offshore accidents.

If you’re uncertain about what your options for compensation are after a preventable accident, call an offshore injury firm as soon as possible. Discovering your options is free when you call the maritime lawyers at Arnold & Itkin LLP.

Call Our Jones Act Lawyers Now to Discover Your Options at No Cost

If you were injured on an offshore vessel, an experienced Jones Act lawyer can review the relevant facts of your injury and the circumstances in which you were injured to help you determine if you are eligible for compensation under the Jones Act. Our law firm specializes in Jones Act cases and has helped our clients recover billions of dollars in verdicts and settlements. Contact us today for a free consultation about your potential Jones Act case.

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