When Is an Offshore Worker Considered a Seaman?
A seaman is someone who does certain work on a vessel that's in navigable water. We'll further define each part of that statement, but it can first help to understand why someone would need to be considered a seaman, and why the definition has been hotly contested in court.
If you work offshore and get hurt on the job, you cannot file a workers' compensation claim like employees on land can do in order to recover benefits for their lost wages and medical costs. If you are a seaman who is injured while working offshore, then you can file for compensation under the Jones Act. However, not everyone who works offshore is a seaman. For instance, if you work on certain types of oil platforms, that may not always count as a vessel, and any work done there would not go towards qualifying as a seaman (though you might still have legal options, such as an LHWCA claim).
Since seeking compensation under the Jones Act sometimes will involve filing a negligence claim against one's employer, just like there is with any other form of work injury cases, there can be pushback from the employer and the insurance company. If you are an offshore worker who needs compensation through the Jones Act, it is important to be able to prove that you fulfill each aspect of qualifying for seaman classification.
What Kind of Vessel Does a Seaman Have to Work On?
A vessel can mean more than a ship or a boat. A vessel technically only needs to be watercraft that is operable, able to float, and in navigable waters. While working on oil platforms was not always viewed as working on a Jones Act vessel, a 2005 Supreme Court ruling determined that to count as a Jones Act vessel, it wasn't necessary to be self-propelled. Accordingly, there are some offshore platforms that would qualify under the Jones Act.
Some examples of watercraft that can be counted as a Jones Act vessel include:
- Cruise ships
- Semi-submersible rigs
- Mobile offshore drilling units
- Pontoon rafts
- Floating casinos (only sometimes, on a case-by-case basis)
If a qualifying vessel is not navigating the seas but is in the harbor, it could still qualify as a Jones Act vessel, but if it's in a drydock for maintenance and repairs, then it is probably no longer considered a Jones Act vessel. If it is a newly constructed watercraft that is still being tested in the waters and hasn't been deemed seaworthy yet, then it may not yet count as a vessel either.
What Kind of Work Makes You a Jones Act Seaman?
As a general rule, and not a hard-and-fast guideline, a qualifying seaman is someone who spends at least 30% of their working hours on a qualifying vessel. For example, if an office worker helps manage an entire fleet of Jones Act vessels, but they don't set foot on those vessels except for maybe one week each quarter, otherwise they're working from land, then they wouldn't qualify as a Jones Act seaman. This would hold true even if they were injured while aboard one of those vessels. However, if this the injured worker instead did office work for just a little more than half their work hours, but the rest of the time is spent working on a Jones Act vessel, then they might be considered a seaman.
If someone does do some work that contributes to the vessel's mission while on the vessel itself, but they spend most of their time working in the harbor not working on the vessel, then they might not qualify as a Jones Act seaman either, even if the rest of their work is more maritime in nature than a clerical worker's would be. Of course, the 30% rule isn't enforced rigidly, so it may still be possible to qualify if you do a considerable amount of work on land or spend time on vessels that wouldn't qualify as a Jones Act vessel.
It should be noted that being a Jones Act seaman is not about rank. Captains can qualify for this classification just as much as any other crew member. It's about how much work you do for the vessel, aboard the vessel (and of course, on the right type of vessel).
What Kind of Options Does an Injured Seaman Have Under the Jones Act?
If you are considered a seaman who contributes to the work of a vessel in navigable water, if you are hurt on the job, you may be able to file a claim under the Jones Act. One type of claim you can file is known as a "maintenance and cure" claim, something a seaman can file for after an on-the-job injury in order to cover the costs of room and board as well as medical bills. If you are deemed to be a seaman, you automatically have the right to this coverage in the event of an injury.
However, if the accident was due to an employer or coworkers' negligence, then in order to recover more compensation, a seaman would have to file a negligence claim and have to establish that someone else was at fault for their injuries. Unlike other negligence claims, it isn't necessary to prove that someone else shares the majority of the blame; it is only necessary to prove that someone else's recklessness or carelessness played any part at all in the accident that caused your injury.
Because of this lower "burden of proof", the most difficult part of filing a Jones Act claim can be asserting that you should be considered a seaman. Since this classification as a seaman is such a crucial part of these claims, the term and who qualifies for it has been intensely debated for years, and this is only likely to continue.