Under the Jones Act, found in Title 46 of USC § 883, injured seamen are eligible to seek compensation for injuries or other damages sustained as part of the course of maritime employment. More formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act provides a forum for qualifying seamen to seek compensation from employers, as well as find immediate compensation fort the inability to work under maintenance and cure provisions, and finally, to file negligence claims against employers or other maritime workers for acts of negligence or permitting unsafe ship conditions on the vessel.
Who Qualifies under the Jones Act as a Seaman Capable of Making Injury Claims?
While historically the proportion of US workers engaged in the maritime industry was relatively higher, a large number of maritime workers engage in maritime commerce and other activities daily unbeknownst to many. The Jones Act, and especially later federal court decisions, ultimately try to define those eligible to file claims under the Jones Act as those seamen or individuals employed aboard a vessel, who spend no less than 30% of their work hours aboard a vessel in navigable waterways under federal jurisdiction.
Generally, those workers falling into the rubric of spending 0% to 29% of their working hours aboard a vessel or merely in a maritime environment will likely first look towards filing claims under the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act, or other maritime doctrines predicated on the traditional civil law definition of negligence as a ground for filing claims for damages.
Common Causes of Action under the Jones Act
In short, any act of negligence by another party, whether only potentially and partially responsible for causing an injured seaman’s damages, opens said individual to liability for the entirety of the seamen’s damage claims. However, a viable cause of action must exist in order for an eligible seaman to file a Jones Act claim, including:
Another party produced a situation or context on the vessel in which the ordinary course of employment or the seaman was being performed in on an unseaworthy craft, per the applicable legal definition
- A vessel owner or captain knowingly brought out to sea a vessel in a manner that exceeded the prudent estimation of the vehicles seaworthiness for such activities
- A vessel owner or captain failed to provide or hire the requisite crew required to establish the seaworthiness of a vessel by way of operating with a prudent and safe number of crewmembers
- Failure to provide necessary, proper, updated, and safe equipment to seamen as part of their onboard employment
Hazard conditions comparable to many land-based occupations, such as slips, falls, burns, electrical injuries, and occupational illness all have a long history as serving as a cause of action in a Jones Act lawsuit.
Jones Act Claims Do Not Consider the Role of Comparative of Contributory Negligence
For Jones Act claims cases, certain claim types might be best under the Jones Act, if negligence in causing his or her injuries and ensuring damages. However, injured seamen are required to substantiate some incident or element of negligence to their claim as incurred by a named defendant. However, seamen are not obliged to meet the traditional legal standard of finding a captain or vessel owner liable by way of proximate cause doctrines relating to negligence and liability. In short, negligence is considered only to the extent did it occur, and was it tangentially related to the injured seamen’s injuries.
Damages Recoverable under the Jones Act
While part of a long-standing maritime legal tradition, most Jones Act claims cases involved injured seaman no longer capable of working, and as such, immediately upon such date, these seamen are entitled to a daily living expenses and ongoing medical care costs as provided by their employer. Additionally, claims under the Jones Act essentially serve as negligence based lawsuits against employers, and as such, greatly expand the potential recoverable damages including economic, non-economic, and with some restrictions per a recent 5th Circuit Court decision, potentially even punitive damage from negligent vessel owners, captains, other seamen, or other maritime employees. Moreover, the Jones Act will cover occupational and other negligence-related illnesses that a seaman may sustain in the course of their duties onboard the vessel.
Statutes of Limitations Do Apply in Jones Act Filings
In any filing made under the Jones Act by aggrieved seamen, any formal legal filing for damages must be made within three (3) years of an incident causing injury, or within three (3) years of the reasonable discovery of harm from an incident manifesting latent or delayed damages unbeknownst to the seaman, per a reasonable person standard. However, any claim of negligence or similar type grievance against a US government employer or vessel most likely requires damages claims being filed well in advance of the three (3) statutes of limitations, and in short, minimally requires adhering to a two (2) year deadline for claims cases involving a federal government owned maritime vessel.