The Jones Act is a federal law that gives seamen who were injured in the course of their employment the right to sue their employer for personal injury damages. Unlike almost all land-based workers, seamen are not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits under either state or federal law. Because injured seamen cannot file workers’ compensation claims against their employers, the only compensation that they are legally entitled to receive for their injuries is through the Jones Act and the general maritime law. This article will focus on the unique issues that come up in Jones Act negligence cases.
What is a Seaman?
In general, a seaman is a person -- from crewmember to captain -- who performs a significant amount of his/her work on a vessel (any kind of ship or boat). Part-time seamen must spend at least 30% of the time working on a vessel in order to qualify under the Jones Act. For more information about who is a seaman, please see our companion article Who Qualifies As A Seaman Under The Jones Act.
Because seaman status is a difficult issue of maritime law, if you were injured at work and think that you might qualify as a Jones Act seaman, you should contact a maritime personal injury lawyer as soon as possible.
What Does The Jones Act Do?
The Jones Act allows an injured seaman to sue an employer for negligence. In order to recover damages from the employer, the seaman must prove that the owner, captain, and/or crew of the vessel that the seaman worked on were negligent, and that their negligence was a cause of the seaman’s injury.
What is Negligence Under The Jones Act?
The Jones Act requires a seaman’s employer to:
- provide the seaman with a reasonably safe place to work, and
- use ordinary care under the circumstances to maintain and keep the vessel on which the seaman works in a reasonably safe condition.
A maritime employer is liable to the seaman under the Jones Act for the negligence of any of its employees, including the seaman’s captain and co-workers.
The Jones Act is a very employee-friendly law. It places a great burden on a seaman’s employer to ensure that the seaman’s workplace is reasonably safe. An employer can be held liable under the Jones Act for all types of unsafe conditions on a vessel such as:
- grease or oil on the deck
- breakage of equipment
- improperly maintained equipment
- the employer’s failure to provide crew members with the proper equipment for them to do their work
- improper training of the seaman or of the crew in general
- unsafe work methods
- negligence of the seaman’s co-workers, and
- assault by a co-worker.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of Jones Act negligence to see just how employee friendly the Jones Act is.
Let’s say that a deckhand is mopping the deck next to a door and doesn't cordon off the area. If another deckhand comes out of the door and slips on the deck, the injured deckhand has a good chance of suing his/her employer for negligence because the first deckhand failed to notify other crew members that the deck was going to be soapy and slippery.
Another example might be if the ship owner fails to have the vessel’s equipment properly maintained. This requirement extends to every part of the vessel and every single piece of equipment on the vessel. Let’s say that a hatch cover gets rusty and becomes very difficult to open. If a crew member injures his/her back trying to lift the hatch cover, the employer will be liable for failing to have properly inspected and repaired the hatch cover.
A Jones Act employer can even be liable for hiring and/or failing to fire a violent crew member. Ships can be tough places, but, if a crew member has developed a reputation for being violent or even threatening with his co-workers, the employer has a legal duty to get that person off the vessel.
Lower "Burden Of Proof" Under The Jones Act
In standard negligence cases, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Proximate cause is a legal term that usually means the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligence played a substantial part in causing the injury. Usually, this means that the defendant’s negligence had to have been the main cause of the plaintiff’s injury.
However, under the Jones Act, a plaintiff's burden for proving that the defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury is much lower. This is a key aspect of the Jones Act.
In order to prove causation under the Jones Act, the plaintiff need only prove that the employer’s negligence played any part -- however small -- in the plaintiff's injuries. There could have been three other more significant causes of the injury, but the plaintiff would still be entitled recover damages against a Jones Act employer as long as the employer’s negligence was even a one-percent cause of the injury.
Damages Under The Jones Act
An injured seaman is entitled to all of the usual types of damages in a personal injury case, such as compensation for lost earnings and lost earning capacity, past and future medical expenses, pain, suffering, and mental anguish. Some courts also allow the seaman to be awarded interest on his/her damages.
Where Can a Seaman File a Jones Act Lawsuit?
A seaman can file a Jones Act lawsuit in either state or federal court.
How Long Does a Seaman Have to File a Jones Act Lawsuit?
A lawsuit under the Jones Act must be filed within three years of the date of the injury.
Learn more about what to expect if you're Making a Jones Act Claim.