The Federal Jones Act is a long-standing law that protects sailors who are injured or killed as a result of the negligence of another person at sea such as the owner of a vessel, a captain, or even another sailor.

The law permits the injured sailor, or his family in the event of the sailor’s death, to sue the ownership of the vessel for negligent actions that contributed to his death or injury.

The Jones Act is frequently used in the commercial fishing and merchant marine industries when employees on ships are injured potentially due to the negligence of the ship’s ownership or crew.

Who Qualifies as a Sailor Under the Jones Act?

Under the Jones Act, a sailor (called a seaman under the law) must have work duties that include the functioning of the vessel or be integral to the mission or purpose of the vessel and have a significant connection to a vessel (or multiple vessels in a fleet) while it is in navigation.

One area that is very fact specific is how “significant” of a connection does a seaman have to the vessel in question. If he only works on a vessel one day out of the whole year, he is not likely to be considered a seaman. But, if the individual works a third of his work hours on a vessel, then he could be probably considered a seaman under the Jones Act.

Being “in navigation” is a special term which means that the vessel must be afloat (in the water), in operation, can move through the water, and operate in a body of water. So, ships in dry dock do not qualify. But, a fully-functional ship docked in a harbor would qualify as a ship in navigation.

Examples of Jones Act Injuries

The Jones Act protects seamen from injuries caused by the negligence of others on board a ship, particularly the management of the vessel.

There are numerous ways in which an employee may be injured on a vessel as commercial shipping and fishing can be dangerous. Some examples of common injuries can arise from:

  • The use of broken or malfunctioning equipment
  • Improper training of the crew
  • Unsafe work areas
  • Negligence by fellow crew members
  • Slip and falls, such as from oily surfaces on the ship’s deck
  • Assault from a fellow crew member

How is This Different From Worker’s Comp?

The purpose of the Jones Act sounds similar to that of a worker’s compensation claim. In worker’s compensation, the employer pays into an insurance fund generally administered by a state governmental agency. Employees who are injured on the job can file a worker’s compensation claim with the agency for medical care costs and to compensate for lost wages due to missing work as a result of the injury.

A Jones Act claim is similar in that an employee makes a claim regarding a workplace injury for medical bills and lost wages, but the mechanics of the Jones Act are different than a traditional worker’s compensation claim.

Most notably, in a worker’s compensation claim, the claim goes to a state agency which evaluates the claim and compensates the injured worker appropriately. In a Jones Act claim, the worker sues the employer directly in a civil suit. There is not any intermediary in a Jones Act claim, it is generally just the employee and the employer (and possibly the employer’s insurance company), but no state agency.

Also, Jones Act claims may be before a jury. This is unusual for maritime law. Most maritime law court cases are adjudicated solely by a judge, but the Jones Act permits civil suits to be presented to a jury.

The Jones Act is a Comparative Negligence Statute

In American law, personal injury statutes are generally either based on a contributory negligence or a comparative negligence standard. Under a contributory negligence law, the court will review how much fault the plaintiff (the injured person) and the defendant (the person allegedly at fault) each were responsible for in the plaintiff’s injury. In some situations, if the plaintiff is even one percent at fault for the injury, for example by being negligent himself, then the law will not permit him to recover any damages from the defendant. Some contributory negligence statutes bar plaintiffs from recovering if they are more than fifty percent responsible for the injury.

Alternatively, under a comparative negligence standard, the court will evaluate the facts of the case and determine how much fault both the plaintiff and defendant are for the plaintiff’s injury. The court will then apportion damages to the plaintiff appropriately based on how much fault is assigned to the defendant. For example, if the court finds that the plaintiff suffered $100,000 in damages but was fifty percent at fault, then the court would order the defendant to pay the plaintiff damages based on half of the total damage award, or $50,000.

The Jones Act is a comparative negligence statute. So, even if the plaintiff is partially responsible for his or her injury on board a vessel, the plaintiff may still recover a portion of his or her damages from the employer. The plaintiff in a Jones Act claim must merely show that the defendant was at least somewhat responsible for the employee’s injury, not entirely responsible.

How Long Can I Wait to File a Jones Act Claim?

It is generally a good idea to consider a Jones Act claim sooner rather than later because there is a statute of limitations which can bar suits that are beyond three years from the date of the injury and because witnesses may forget key facts as time passes making it more difficult to present a successful case.

Injured employees should retain their medical records and days taken for sick leave due to the injury in order to support a claim if necessary.

Injured seamen can file a Jones Act suit in either Federal or state court. The suit generally should be filed in a jurisdiction where the defendant works or is headquartered.