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The challenges of claiming seamen’s status

There is continuing debate on what constitutes “seaman’s status” when a worker who is injured while working for a maritime employer files a claim under the Jones Act. The conflict is showing in a recent U.S. Fifth Circuit appeals case, where two different panels of judges have conflicting opinions.

Because land-based ship repairmen or welders and those who work on oil rigs and anchored vessels are not technically seafaring, there are differing opinions as lower courts decide cases involving Jones Act injury claims.

The Jones Act

The Jones Act, or the Merchant Marine’s Act of 1920, was a protectionist measure to keep American-made sea vessels operating in an era when maritime commerce was seriously crippled by wartime blockades.

This law also helps sailors by allowing them or their families to recover compensation from their employers if they have been injured, become sick on the job, or died in a work-related accident. As maritime employers are not required to provide worker’s compensation to their employees, an injured maritime worker can seek damages by filing a negligence claim against their employer under this law.

Proving that the employer or ship owner did not provide a safe working environment, or did not correct a hazardous condition, often requires the involvement of OSHA to check for safety violations. Or, in the case of vessels inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard, the employee may file a formal complaint through OSHA, which would then go to the USCG.

Seaman’s status test

While the Jones Act has given injured seamen better legal protection over the past century, defining who qualifies as a seaman has created many legal challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court only weighed in relatively recently, in 1991 and 1995. The Court coalesced their opinion of the employment-related connection to seaman status as a two-pronged test:

  • The employee must have a connection to the vessel that is substantial in nature and duration, and his work must contribute to the ship’s function or mission
  • A worker who spends less than 30% of his time working for that vessel cannot qualify as a seaman

Lower court decisions in many states show conflicting results that are being closely monitored to determine how seaman’s status is applied in Jones Act cases across the country.

 

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