The U.S. Congress long ago recognized the difficulty of enforcing land-based protections for workers on the high seas. As a result, the federal government established the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, often referred to as the Jones Act. This law outlines the rights and regulations regarding seamen and their employers. Understanding the Jones Act is important if you work away from dry land because many misconceptions have sprung up in regards to the law of the sea.
Have you worked enough to be considered a seaman?
If you are injured while working at sea, a first step to obtaining compensation may be proving that you are a seaman. The Jones Act seems pretty straight forward in its definition. It says that anyone who spends 30 percent or more of their time working on a vessel qualifies as a seaman and is entitled to the Act's protections.
However, judges can use the 30-percent measure as a general rule and consider other factors as well. For instance, if your full-time job is working on ships but it's seasonal, a court may balance the time spent against the available work. Basically, courts have a fair amount of discretion when deciding who is a seaman and who is not.
Sea workers can generally sue employers
In many ways, land-based workers' compensation is a grand trade-off. Companies are required to carry insurance to promptly cover medical expenses and lost wages and in return they are generally exempt from lawsuits related to work injuries. Unlike New York workers' compensation laws, the Jones Act allows seamen to file lawsuits against employers for negligence and recover damages. Things that may be considered negligence by an employer include:
- Vessel is not seaworthy
- Unsafe work environment or methods
- Poorly trained coworkers
- Crewmember violence
- Greasy or oily decks
Seamen sometimes believe that an employer must be directly responsible for the cause of an injury. For instance, a worker may believe that a captain would have had to spill oil on the deck before that worker could hold him or her accountable for a slip-related injury. Thankfully, this isn't the case under the Jones Act. If your employer didn't maintain a reasonably safe workplace, they could be held accountable for damages regardless of whether their actions specifically caused the injurious accident in question.
Jones Act matters may be state or federal claims
While the Jones Act applies to seamen in every state working under an American flag, that doesn't mean that your workers' compensation claim or civil lawsuit must be automatically filed as a federal case. If you are a New Yorker or working out of a New York port, your attorney could file a claim in either federal or state court depending on what is in your best interest. This is called "savings to suitors" under the law, which basically helps reduce the expenses of injured seamen.
Maritime Law is a complicated niche that not all lawyers practice. It is important to understand that if you or a loved one has suffered an injury or loss while working at sea, it's imperative that you have an attorney with Jones Act experience on your side.