Who Qualifies as a "Seaman" Under the Jones Act?

The federal requirements Seamen must meet to claim maritime worker injuries.

By , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law

The Jones Act is a federal law that gives a seaman who was injured on the job the right to sue their employer for personal injury damages. So, the next big question might be, "What is a seaman for purposes of the Jones Act?" We'll answer that question in the sections below. (For the basics on this law, check out our companion article The Jones Act and Seaman's Injuries.)

What is a Seaman? - Basic Definition

In general, a seaman is a person who spends a significant amount of his/her time working as a crewmember or a captain on a vessel (almost any kind of ship or boat) that is considered "in navigation." Let's take a closer look at what some of these elements mean in the real world.

The "Vessel In Navigation" Requirement

A vessel "in navigation" is a special legal term. Basically, it means that the vessel has to be:

  • afloat
  • in operation
  • capable of moving, and
  • on navigable waters.

The vessel does not actually have to be moving or at sea in order for the person to qualify as a seaman. The vessel simply has to be capable of moving under its own power or being sailed (if it is a sailboat). A vessel "in navigation" can be tied up at a dock or mooring, but a vessel "in navigation" cannot be in a drydock or out of the water up on blocks.

"Navigable waters" is another special legal term that means waters (i.e., a river or lake) that are capable of being used for interstate or foreign commerce. The ocean and all waters that are connected directly into the water are navigable waters, but landlocked lakes can also qualify, as long as they either extend into another state or are connected to a river that flows into another state.

Let's look at a couple of examples of what are not considered vessels "in navigation" under the Jones Act.

First, what about an oil drilling platform? While a drilling platform might be able to float and be used as a barge, it is not afloat. An oil drilling platform is permanently anchored to the bottom of the ocean. Therefore, it is not considered to be a vessel in navigation.

Another type of vessel that may not technically be a vessel "in navigation" is a newly built vessel that is still undergoing sea trials to make sure that it is ready for delivery to the owner. It is in the ocean and sailing around, but it is not actually in commercial operation. So, it is not considered to be a vessel "in navigation."

A third example is floating casino barges. Some states require casinos to be afloat, but do not actually require them to sail around a lake or the ocean. So some floating casinos do nothing more than float in man-made ponds. This is a very complicated legal issue. If you were injured while working on a floating casino, you should contact a maritime personal injury lawyer to find out if your floating casino qualifies as a vessel in navigation.

The Seaman Must Contribute to the Work of the Vessel

This is a very broad definition. A seaman "contributes to the work of the vessel" if the seaman's work adds to the accomplishment of the vessel's mission. It is difficult to conceive of a vessel crew member who does not contribute to the accomplishment of the vessel's mission. About the only type of maritime employee who might find him/herself on a vessel and not be contributing to the accomplishment of the vessel's mission might be a member of the vessel owner's administrative support staff who, for some reason, is on the vessel during one of its trips.

The "Significant Amount of Time" Requirement

This is a trickier requirement -- you might say that maritime lawyers spend a "significant" amount of their time litigating this issue.

In general, in order to qualify as a seaman, at least 30% of the employee's total employment time must be spent on a vessel or on a specific fleet of vessels. Let's look at a couple of examples to get a better idea of who qualifies as a seaman.

Let's say that a licensed seaman generally works in his/her company's office managing the company's fleet of tankers, but that, once a year, he/she takes a one week trip on one of the tankers. That person is clearly not a seaman. But let's say that the person works 60% of the time in the office, 25% of the time on vessel A, and 15% of the time of vessel B, and that both vessels are owned by his/her employer. Because the two vessels will generally be considered to be a "fleet" of vessels, if that person gets hurt while working on one of the vessels, he/she will likely qualify as a seaman because he/she works at least 30% of the time on a specific fleet of vessels.

Learn more about the Jones Act Claim Process.

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