The Jones Act: Providing Compensation to Seamen Who Suffer Job-related Injuries or Illnesses While at Sea

The Jones Act: Providing Compensation to Seamen Who Suffer Job-related Injuries or Illnesses While at Sea

Apr 16

Unlike regular workers or employees (whose work is land-based), those whose job description qualify them to the title “seaman” are not covered by the State-required and regulated Workers’ Compensation, a program that provides financial benefits to workers who sustain injuries while performing their job or who develop work-related illnesses. They are however, covered under the Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, a federal law designed to protect American workers who get ill or injured, or who die at sea. Under this Act, seamen who suffer injuries at sea are legally allowed to recover compensation from their employers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, water transportation workers usually work for long periods and can be exposed to all kinds of weather.

Though the law does not distinctly define just who may be identified as a “seaman,” it is clear that not all those who work on or near the water qualify for the benefits provided under the Jones Act. This concern leaves maritime lawyers consulting texts of court decisions in order to determine whether a crew member may indeed be identified as a seaman (based on court definition, a seaman is someone who works on a vessel or fleet operating in navigable waters, that is waterways that are being used for interstate or foreign commerce).

The ability to file a lawsuit (based on negligence) is probably the most important benefit the Jones Act ensures those who qualify. Failure to prove employer negligence, however, can result to freedom of an employer from being fully accountable for the injury or illness suffered by his or her workers.

A court may rule that an employer (or a co-worker) is guilty of negligence if he or she takes unreasonable risks which result to a worker getting injured. If negligence is proven, the injured seaman can be awarded economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages covers cost of medical treatment, lost income and loss of earning capacity; non-economic damages, on the other hand, pay for the pains and sufferings of the injured.

Sometimes, rather than a direct act of negligence by an employer or a co-worker, injury or illness turns out to be a consequence of an employer’s failure to improve a vessel’s substandard condition, making the vessel “unseaworthy.” Under the Law of Unseaworthiness, shipowners who fail to provide their workers a seaworthy vessel, a vessel that is appropriate for their intended use, will be held liable for personal injuries sustained by their crew. This law otherwise implies that shipowners have a legal responsibility in ensuring that their ship is manned by a competent crew, is properly equipped and, most important of all, in safe working order.

Besides compensation for economic and non-economic damages, the law firm Williams Kherkher mentions in its website another compensatory benefit that injured crew members can collect: compensation for maintenance and cure. Maintenance refers to the monetary benefit paid to the injured crew member. This benefit in meant to cover room and board expenses or necessary household expenses, like mortgage and utilities. Cure, on the other hand, is meant to cover medical and rehabilitative care until the injured makes as complete a medical recovery as possible. This maintenance and cure benefit is very much like the Workers’ Compensation benefits; it is awarded to injured crew members without taking into account the conduct of the employer or ship owner.