Special federal and maritime laws protect maritime workers when they have been injured while on the job. Unlike workers on land in the United States, seaman and sailors who are injured while on the job in U.S. navigable waters and U.S. ports are not eligible to file a workers’ compensation claim. Instead, injured maritime workers must files claims under the Jones Act and/or under the maritime laws relating to the unseaworthiness of the vessel on which the worker was injured.
Claims against a maritime employer are made under the Jones Act, while claims against the vessel’s owner are made via an unseaworthiness claim. Sometimes the employer and the owner of the vessel are the same entity or individual, sometimes they are separate and distinct entities or individuals. The payouts on Jones Act and unseaworthiness claims are generally much larger than normal worker’s compensation claims because they include benefits above and beyond what is provided for in the average worker’s compensation payout.
The Jones Act
The Jones Act serves two main purposes. First, it serves to promote and regulate maritime commerce in U.S. navigable waters and between U.S. ports. This portion of the Jones Act was designed to promote and encourage the building, ownership, staffing and use of American-made ships in maritime commerce. A second portion of the Jones Act is an extension of the Federal Employer’s Liability Act and it serves to provide seamen who are injured while working at sea with the ability to bring a personal injury action against their employer for negligence damages.
Who Is A Seaman?
A seaman is a special legal term under the Jones Act referring to a worker on a vessel whose primary job activities require him or her to spend a significant amount of their time on-board a vessel that is considered to be in navigation, meaning that the vessel needs to be in operation, in the water (afloat) and capable of movement on navigable waters. There is no requirement that the vessel be out at sea or even actually moving at the time of the injury to qualify the employee for a Jones Act claim. The vessel could be on a river, lake or tied up at a dock, so long as the vessel is in the water and capable of movement. The worker must contribute to the work of the vessel and must spend at least 30% of his or her total employment time aboard a specific vessel or fleet of vessels in order to qualify as a seaman.
Maritime Employer’s Obligations
A maritime employer, under the Jones Act, is obligated to provide the seaman workers with a reasonably safe workplace. This means that the maritime employer must, under the circumstances, exercise ordinary care to keep and maintain the sea vessel in a reasonably safe condition. A failure to do so, which leads to the injury of a worker, can result in the employer being held liable for the injury and having to provide guaranteed benefits to the injured worker.
Nearly any unsafe condition on-board a vessel that causes an injury can result in a negligence claim under the Jones Act. Many injuries are caused by use of equipment that is in disrepair, improper or inadequate safety equipment provided by the employer, lack of adequate training of the crew and seamen, and failing to require staff to follow proper safety protocol. So long as the employer’s negligence played even a small role in causing the worker’s injury, the injured worker will have satisfied his or her burden of proving causation for the negligence claim under the Jones Act.
Under maritime law, a seaman or sailor can assert a claim of unseaworthiness of the vessel upon which his or her injury was sustained against a vessel owner. The vessel owner is often times also the injured worker’s employer, but in situations where the vessel is owned by someone other than the employer, the injured employee will have a cause of action against two parties: a Jones Act claim against the employer, and an unseaworthiness claim against the vessel’s owner.
Under the law, a vessel owner has an absolute and non-delegatable responsibility to ensure that his or her vessel is seaworthy, meaning that the vessel is in a safe condition for operation. Unseaworthiness is a low burden to prove, placing a high level of accountability and strict responsibility on the vessel owner.
In order for a vessel to be seaworthy, the hull of the vessel, the equipment on board the vessel, and the crew staffing the vessel must all be reasonably adequate for performing their intended functions while the ship is in operation. When the vessel is in disrepair, or is inappropriately prepared for operation, and the defunct condition results in an injury to a seaman working aboard the ship, the owner can be held accountable for negligence, even if the ship owner acted reasonably. Claims for unseaworthiness couple well with injury claims made under the Jones Act. Claims made under the Jones Act are targeted at the seaman’s employer, however unseaworthiness claims are directed to the owner of the vessel.
Unseaworthiness claims can be applied to any vessel, including boats, ships and barges, but can also apply to certain offshore rigs. These types of claims must be brought within three years of the worker suffering the injury, and must always be brought in conjunction with a Jones Act claim.