The Jones Act Basic Primer

One area of Maritime Law concerns the Jones Act. Let’s examine this law in a bit more detail, so we have a greater understanding of what this law is and what it does for an injured seaman. The Jones Act is a federal statute, one portion of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which allows injured seamen to sue their employers where there has been negligence on the part of the employer, the captain or fellow crew member which has resulted in an injury.


It’s not as simple as it sounds! First, the Jones Act is NOT a workers’ compensation scheme. Injured seamen cannot claim workers’ compensation of any kind, either under state or federal rules. Traditional workers’ compensation provides payment to an injured worker regardless of whether the employer was negligent in some way. If the worker was injured on the job, they will get compensation from the employer’s insurance company. Usually the injured worker does not have the right to sue their employer for the injury in addition to recovery under the workers’ compensation program. (There are some exceptions to this, but that is a much more involved conversation!)

The Jones Act allows injured seamen to sue their employer for negligence if they were injured in the course of their employment AND the employer’s negligence caused or contributed to their injury. Think of this as more like a regular personal injury case – the seaman can sue for past and future medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering. The Jones Act also allows the family of a deceased seaman to sue for wrongful death if there has been negligence on the part of the employer, and they can sue for all the usual damages available in wrongful death cases, such as loss of support and nurturing, loss of inheritance, and any pain and suffering the seaman experienced before death.

Criteria for Recovery

Still, it’s not a simple task to recover under the Jones Act. The injured worker must first be considered a “seaman” as defined by subsequent legislation and case law. (Interestingly, in 1920 Congress did not see the need to specifically define “seaman” in the Jones Act, so the term has been defined by case law and by other statutes.)
A seaman is one who spends a significant amount of time working as a crew member, officer or captain of a vessel or fleet of vessels that are considered “in navigation.” Each of these criteria bears further examination.

“A significant amount of time” has been deemed to be at least 30% of the employee’s time working as crew or captain must be on a vessel or a specific fleet of vessels. An employee who works part time as a seaman must still meet the 30% requirement to recover under the Jones Act.

“Vessel” refers to nearly any kind of ship or boat, including recreational boats and most types of commercial boats. This can get tricky, though, as some things you might think are vessels do not fall under the definition. For instance, an oil drilling platform is a fixed structure, cemented to the ocean floor, so it is not a vessel for Jones Act purposes. Other types of drilling rigs, such as jack up rigs or semi-submersibles are usually considered vessels – this is why you need an attorney to guide you in these matters!

“….in navigation” generally means a vessel that is afloat, in operation (as opposed to a new boat being tested in open waters before delivery), capable of moving on navigable waters. A vessel can be tied up at a dock, but it has to be able to move. A vessel in drydock does not qualify for Jones Act purposes. A “floating” casino may or may not be considered a vessel in navigation under this requirement – you definitely need an attorney to sort that one out!

Further, to be considered a seaman, the worker must contribute to the work of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission. Most workers on boats fulfill this requirement, as it is difficult to imagine someone working on a commercial vessel who is not contributing to the mission!


The law imposes on the employer a duty to provide the seaman a safe place to work, and to use ordinary care under the circumstances to maintain the vessel in a reasonably safe condition. Failure to do these things can give rise to liability if a seaman is injured or killed. Some examples of unsafe conditions that could result in employer liability are: failure to maintain equipment properly, failure to properly train the crew, unsafe work methods, failure to provide the crew with proper equipment, negligence of fellow crew members, or even failure to terminate unsafe or violent workers. This is quite a long list, and it shows the great responsibility that the employer has to ensure the seamen are working in safe conditions. If the seaman is injured or killed due to unseaworthiness of the vessel, it gives rise to an additional claim the seaman or the family has under the Jones Act. This, too, is a discussion for another day!

Time Limits

As with every type of legal claim, there are time limits for making that claim. You have three (3) years to make a claim under the Jones Act. This is true whether the claim is for negligence, wrongful death or unseaworthiness. Do not wait, or sit on your rights, or you may find that it is too late to bring an action. As you can see, there are numerous considerations in filing a claim under the Jones Act. You want to be sure you are pursuing your claim correctly, and this is best done with experienced Jones Act and Maritime Law attorneys. Don’t try to go this one alone, as you may not obtain the best outcome for you or your family. Experienced attorneys can best navigate your claim through the treacherous waters that has become Jones Act litigation.