Who is A “Seaman” Under the Jones Act?

Who is a seamanWhat is the Jones Act?

The Jones Act is a federal statute of United States Maritime law, part 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 (or the captain or fellow crew member) which has resulted in an injury to the seaman.

It is important to note this is not a workers compensation law; injured seamen cannot claim workers compensation of any kind under state or federal law.

The Jones Act (46 U.S.C. § 688) states, in pertinent part:

Any seaman who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment, may, at his election, maintain an action for damages at law, with the right to trial by jury…..and in the case of the death of such seaman as a result of such personal injury, the personal representative of such seaman may maintain an action for damages at law with the right to trial by jury……. Jurisdiction in such actions shall be under the court of the district in which the defendant employer resides or in which his principal office is located.

The threshold questions for a Jones Act claim are (1) was the employee a seaman, (2) was the employer negligent in some way, and (3) did that negligence cause an injury?  This is more like a “regular” negligence case, and the injured seaman can sue for lost wages, past and future medical expenses and pain and suffering.  The family of a deceased seaman can sue for wrongful death, and those damages include loss of support and nurturing, loss of inheritance, as well as any pain and suffering the deceased might have experienced before death.

Jones Act or Longshore Harbor Workers Compensation Act?

Here is where the waters get murky.  There are often questions about whether the Jones Act applies to an injured worker, or the Longshore Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA) or a state workers compensation system.  Not easy questions to answer, as Congress did not really define a “seaman” when it passed the Jones Act.

The answer turns on the definition of “seaman” which has evolved from exclusionary language in the LHWCA and case law.      

Who Is A Seaman?

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.”

Oh, but there are so many words and phrases in THAT definition that need clarification!  Let’s start with the concept of “a significant amount of time.”

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.

So for example, the owner of a shipping company who spends most of their time in an office setting and only goes to sea once a year would NOT be considered a seaman under this analysis.  If there several boats in a fleet, and a worker spends some time on one and some time on others, as long as it comprises 30% of their total working time, they ARE considered a seaman for the purposes of the Jones Act.

Vessel” refers to nearly any kind of ship or boat, including recreational boats and most types of commercial boats.  (This isn’t as straightforward as you might think, and we will talk about that below)

“….in navigation” generally means a vessel that is afloat, in operation (as opposed to a new boat being tested in open waters before delivery) and 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.

Finally, to be considered a seaman, the worker must contribute to the work of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.  This is a very broad definition – most workers on vessels fulfill this requirement.  Therefore, cooks in the galley would generally be considered seamen, as their work definitely contributes the accomplishment of the mission.

The Complications

You might think that offshore drilling rigs would be considered “vessels” for these purposes, but courts have found that if the rig is permanently attached to the ocean floor, it is not capable of navigation; therefore the workers are not seamen.  On the other hand, semi-submersible and jack-up rigs are considered “vessels” for Jones Act purposes, and those workers permanently assigned to those types of rigs are considered seamen.  However, transitory workers such as those on wireline crews or casing crews are not considered “seamen” but “maritime employees” and so different rules apply.

Floating casinos present another tricky situation – some casinos are capable of floating or navigating, some are permanently fixed to a dock or other mooring.  An injured worker on a casino barge definitely needs to check with a maritime attorney to see which rules apply – Jones Act, LHWCA or state workers compensation.  These become complex situations.

Seek Experienced Maritime Law Attorneys

If you or a loved one has been injured, and you are not sure which law applies to your situation, or you don’t know where to turn for help, consult with an experienced Maritime Law attorney.  They are aware of the specific definitions, which laws will apply to your situation, and they can guide your case accordingly.  There are stringent time periods in which you must bring your case, so do not wait and lose your right to recovery for the injury or death.

You need experienced legal help to sort all this out, as it can be very confusing and frustrating if you are going down the wrong road in pursuing a claim.