New York is one of this country’s major ports and as such, numerous New Yorkers work in the shipping industry in some capacity. If they contract an illness or suffer an injury during their employment, the Jones Act provides the method for them to recover their medical costs, lost wages and daily living expenses from their employer, even if they were not on board their ship at the time of their accident or the onset of their illness.
The Legal Information Institute explains that the Jones Act is a 1920 federal statute whose original purpose was to provide support for merchant mariners. It likewise, however, makes the Federal Employer’s Liability Act available to seamen working on commercial and military vessels. These seamen can file personal injury suits against their employers in state or federal court.
Per Sea History, the Jones Act serves as a seaman’s version of workers’ compensation. The practical effect is equivalent to a seaman belonging to a health maintenance organization (his or her employer or its insurance provider), but paying no insurance premiums to belong to it. Unlike workers’ compensation, however, the employer must pay the seaman’s medical costs even if the injury or illness is not job-related. Additionally, in terms of an accident, it makes no difference whether or not the seaman was partially or totally responsible for his or her accident except in very rare circumstances.
Maintenance, cure and unearned wages
Maintenance and cure represent two key words with regard to what the employer must pay under the Jones Act. “Maintenance” means the seaman’s daily living expenses; “cure” means his or her medical costs. Although the employer must pay both, the Act provides that it can cease payments when the seaman attains a state of “maximum medical improvement,” even if the seaman incurs additional medical expenses. The employer likewise can cease maintenance payments at this point.
The Act also makes the employer liable for the seaman’s unearned wages, including overtime pay. The employment agreement between the employer and the seaman, however, determines the length of time the employer must pay these. For instance, should the employment contract cover only a specific voyage, the employer can cease paying unearned wages as soon as the voyage ends.