The Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is a federal law that regulates maritime commerce in the United States.
46 U.S. Code § 30104 (a section of the Jones Act) extends the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA) to seamen who sustain injuries or lose their lives. It states:
“A seaman injured in the course of employment or, if the seaman dies from the injury, the personal representative of the seaman may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer.”
Put simply, the Jones Act grants seamen and their families the right to take legal action against a negligent employer in the event of an injury, illness, or death.
Employer Requirements Under the Jones Act
Under the Jones Act, a seaman’s employer must:
- Provide the seaman with a reasonably safe working environment, and
- Use ordinary care to keep the vessel on which the seaman works in a reasonably safe condition.
Unfortunately, maritime employers do not always live up to these obligations. The most common ways they create unsafe working conditions for seamen include:
- Failing to maintain or repair equipment
- Failing to clean oil or grease spills
- Improperly training their seamen, and
- Failing to provide their seamen with essential safety equipment
Maritime companies that create these unsafe working environments can be found negligent and held liable for damages under the Jones Act if one of their workers dies, becomes ill, or sustains an injury aboard their ship.
Who is Entitled to Compensation Under the Jones Act?
To recover compensation under the Jones Act, an individual must:
- Develop an illness or sustain an injury during their maritime employment
- Prove that their illness or injury was caused, in part, by the negligence of their employer or a fellow employee, and
- Meet the definition of a “seaman” as outlined in federal law.
Federal courts typically define a “seaman” as an individual who spends a “significant amount of their time” as a crewmember or captain that “contributes to the work” of a “vessel in navigation.”
Workers generally meet the “significant amount of time” requirement if they spend more than 30 percent of their total employment time on a vessel or fleet. In addition, an employee typically “contributes to the work” if their efforts help the ship achieve its primary mission. Almost all crew members meet this requirement.
US law defines a “vessel in navigation” as any vessel that is:
- In operation
- Capable of moving, and
- On navigable waters
Notably, a vessel does not have to be actively moving to be classified as “in navigation.” As long as it can move under its own power, it meets the Jones Act requirements. A docked or moored boat can still be considered “in navigation.” However, a vessel placed in drydock cannot be categorized as “in navigation.”
Compensation Available Under the Jones Act
People who suffer injuries during their maritime employment can generally recover compensation for the following types of damages under the Jones Act:
- Initial medical costs
- Rehabilitation expenses
- Lost wages
- Loss of future earning capacity
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of enjoyment of life
When maritime employees lose their lives as a result of employer negligence, their families may file a wrongful death suit and pursue compensation for damages such as:
- Loss of inheritance
- Loss of consortium
- Burial or cremation costs
Maritime workers who suffer severe, life-altering injuries receive the most substantial compensation payouts under the Jones Act. However, settlements can vary significantly from case to case.
Injured parties who wish to gain a more accurate understanding of the amount of compensation they may be eligible to receive should consult with an experienced Jones Act attorney.
How Comparative Negligence Can Impact a Jones Act Case
Injured seamen often believe they cannot pursue compensation if they are partially to blame for their accident. In reality, however, this is not the case.
Under the Jones Act, injured maritime workers may proceed with a compensation claim even if they hold a percentage of the blame for the accident. The court will not dismiss the case for this reason. However, a judge may reduce a compensatory award if they find the plaintiff partially at fault. This decision will align with the percentage of the blame.
This rule, known as comparative negligence, means if an injured maritime worker incurs $50,000 in damages in an accident for which they hold 20 percent of the blame, they will not receive a check for $50,000. Instead, the court will deduct $10,000 and award them $40,000.
Statute of Limitations in Jones Act Cases
The standard statute of limitations in Jones Act cases is three years. This rule means individuals who suffer injuries due to their maritime employer’s negligence must generally file a claim within three years of the date of their accident.
There are some exceptions to this general rule, however.
If a maritime employee does not discover their injury until some time in the future, their statutory clock does not begin to tick on the date of their accident. Instead, it starts on the day their doctor gives them their diagnosis.
In Jones Act cases where the defendant is the US government, the statutory window is reduced to two years.
Injured maritime workers who do not file their Jones Act claims before their statute of limitations expires may lose their right to recover compensation.
A Houston Jones Act Attorney You Can Count On
Do you believe you may be eligible to claim compensation under the Jones Act? If so, please do not hesitate to set up a free consultation with the team Williams Hart & Boundas Boundas LLP. We have been helping seamen recover settlements from negligent employers for years, and we are ready to do the same for you!