In the days when sailing ships ruled the waves, the intrepid souls who served on board did so at their own risk. Illness and death were their frequent fate, yet well into the 20th century, injured seamen and their families enjoyed only minimal legal recourse. The collection of damages demanded a presentation of proof that the ship on which they had served had not been seaworthy.

Even in cases when this was apparent, the courts tended to obey the dictates of the “fellow-seaman” doctrine, relieving a ship’s owners of liability by claiming negligence on the part of its crew.

A Ground-Breaking Sea Change

Section 33 of 1920’s Merchant Marine Act changed all that. Popularly known as the Jones Act, its provisions specifically allowed any seaman who suffered injury or death while performing his duties at sea to bring a claim against the ship’s owner.

In protecting the rights of seamen, the Jones Act set an important precedent. There was only one problem, and it was major: Although the act meticulously outlined the various rights of seamen, it failed to define exactly who was a seaman.

What Constitutes a Sailor?

In 1940, the Supreme Court ruled on the matter, declaring that a seaman was only a seaman if his duties pertained specifically to the navigation of a seagoing vessel. This still left individual courts at liberty to define vessels and sailors as they wished.

The proliferation of dredging operations and offshore drilling rigs created a demand for more stringent guidelines. These vast changes have resulted in a generally accepted set of rules that must be met by any seaman hoping to recover personal injury damages under the Jones Act.

The Modern-Day Seaman

Today’s courts normally consider a seaman a worker whose shipboard labors fulfill a vessel’s mission by contributing to its function. This definition rules out:

  • Most Dock workers. Although they do perform some of their duties on board ship, courts have decided that such laborers play no part in the actual functioning of a vessel.
  • Some workers who suffer shipboard injury during transport to or from a job that they perform on land.
  • Some contractors and others performing shipboard labor on a temporary basis.

Often, a worker’s qualification as a seaman will hinge largely on what percentage of his duties actually takes place on board a ship. Further, at the time of his injury, a plaintiff seeking protection under the Jones Act must have suffered his injuries while in the employ of the ship’s owners. All others will need to seek recourse through the common law or some other applicable statute.

What Constitutes a Vessel?

To meet the definition of a vessel, a conveyance must have the ability to move or be moved in navigation. Although this would seem to cover a wide range of devices, it does exclude such things as fixed oil platforms that are incapable of providing transport.

Submersible oil rigs, on the other hand, can move in the water, and this fact qualifies them for coverage under the Jones Act.

The Times Continue Changing

The exact interpretation of the Jones Act often remains the province of the courts, and given the speed at which technology advances, problems could easily continue to arise. Nevertheless, the act’s protections remain valuable for anyone earning his livelihood in the business of nautical navigation.