Jones Act: 100 Years of Protecting U.S. Seamen

By Alan Jervis B.A. Hons., F.C.I.I., M.A.E., Chartered Insurer
Marine, Energy and Liability Insurance Expert
Member of the Academy of Experts

The U.S. Congress adopted the Merchant Marine Act in early June 1920. Named for the late Senator Wesley Jones, the Jones Act is known for its protectionism of the U.S. coastwise trade. But it is also known for formalising the rights of seamen.
The Jones Act should not be confused with the Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act (LHWCA). This latter U.S. legislation is the section of maritime law that specifically covers the legal rights and compensation benefits of longshoremen as well as anyone who works in or around the harbor, including shipbuilders and repairmen who work on the docks rather than on the water.

Even before the 20th century, the courts have protected seaman who also have been described as the ‘wards of admiralty.’

The Jones Act allows injured sailors to make claims and obtain damages from their maritime ship owner employers as a result of the latter’s negligence or the vessel’s unseaworthiness. Such negligence may vicariously cover not only the acts of the captain but also the negligent acts of fellow crew members.

Examples of circumstances that may give rise to a claim include: poorly maintained vessel equipment, unsafe working conditions, slip and fall on the deck or inadequate training.

Under this 100 year old law, a sailor who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment may, at his election, maintain an action for damages at law, with the right to trial by jury. The action may be entertained in federal or state court.

Rights of action include cases of unseaworthiness or negligence.

Under the Jones Act, you receive protection if you are classified as a “seaman.” A seaman is typically a crew member or captain that performs their work on a vessel. To qualify under the “seaman” category, you must spend 30 percent of your work time on a vessel.

Furthermore, the vessel must be in navigation. An oil drill platform permanently anchored to the ocean floor is not generally considered to be a ‘vessel in navigation’ for example.

Under the Jones Act, the plaintiff does not carry the standard burden of proof in civil cases. The seaman only has to show that the defendant’s negligence played some part in their injury.

Alan Jervis is an international Marine Insurance Expert and Consultant

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to offer legal advice. It is for educational purposes only.