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Accidents and crimes on the high seas: What you need to know

The authority of a ship’s captain and the protection of the Jones Act are two important items to understand if you work or travel in international waters. Here are eight frequently asked questions about laws covering accidents and crimes at sea.

 

1. Where do international waters start?

The “high seas” or international waters are 12 nautical miles from the low water or baseline of a coastal state.

2. Are lakes international waters?

Yes. International waters can also refer to a lake in another country where a vessel is sailing.

3. What is the Jones Act?

The Jones Act is a federal statute. It was created so that ship crew members, usually on merchant vessels, could recover damages if they were injured. It also affords protection to a crewmember’s spouse, children or family if the crewmember dies from an accident while working shipboard.

4. What if the ship is in another country when an accident happens?

If you work for a company that transports goods through foreign waters you are still covered under the Jones Act. This means if you get sick or are injured due to negligence or poor working conditions you can seek financial compensation from the owner of the ship or the company. It does not matter that the ship was outside the United States when your illness or injury happened.

5. Which workers are covered?

The Jones Act covers any worker with a strong connection to the ship. This includes captains, food servers, bar tenders; basically all staff and crew.

6. What if the ship or vessel is docked when an accident happens?

If the ship or vessel is currently staffed and in use then it is covered under the Jones Act.

7. What happens if a crime is committed in international waters?

While no country can claim sovereignty in international waters, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries can apply their laws and jurisdiction to what happens to people in international waters. This means if you are on a ship flying the U.S. flag you are held to United States laws.

8. Does a ships captain have absolute authority?

Yes. The captain is responsible for the safety of the ship, passengers and crew. If a crime is committed on a ship then the ship’s captain will most likely restrain the alleged perpetrator until the boat is once again at a U.S port. The captain can also drop the perpetrator off at the next port of call— either at the port, or to the local authorities. If the alleged perpetrator is a crew member the captain will most likely detain the crew member in a guarded room and bring the member back to the U.S for an investigation and possible charges.

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