What Are My Legal Rights as a Seaman? The Jones Act Law and Beyond
Worker’s compensation laws often cover employees who suffer injuries on the job, but they don’t apply to seamen who earn their living on waterborne vessels. Instead of seeking redress under state ordinances, injured seamen must turn to the Jones Act law and other maritime statutes that govern the relationship between offshore workers and their employers.
Because of the importance and danger of maritime work, federal statutes give offshore workers greater protection in the form of expanded legal rights. Depending on the facts of a particular case, an injured seaman may have the right:
- Under the Jones Act, to sue for damages that result from
- Under maritime law, to sue for damages that result from an unseaworthy vessel.
- Under maritime law, to receive maintenance and cure, regardless of fault.
In some cases, a worker may be able to seek all three forms of redress. To determine whether you might be entitled to compensation under maritime law, keep reading, and then call a Jones Act lawyer in Houston who can sort through the particulars of your case.
What Is the Purpose of the Jones Act?
The Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is a federal law that allows seamen to sue negligent employers for personal injuries sustained in the course of their work. Essentially, the law demands that employers provide a reasonably safe work environment for their crews.
The reason is simple: The nature of maritime work is both vital and dangerous—vital to the nation’s economy and security, and dangerous for the seamen who serve as the backbone of the industry.
Under the Jones Act, any failure to use ordinary care in the maintenance of a vessel can be grounds for a lawsuit. If a worker suffers illness, injury, or death as a result of the employer’s action or inaction, or another coworker’s action or inaction, then they are entitled to compensation.
Negligence can range from serious dereliction, such as neglecting to provide the most essential safety equipment, to minor oversights, such as failing to clean up a grease spill on deck. Under the Jones Act, the following are just some of the unsafe conditions that may give rise to a maritime claim:
- Improper equipment maintenance
- Failure to provide basic equipment
- Failure to handle hazardous conditions as they arise
- Improper or inadequate training
- Insufficient oversight of crew
- Failure to establish safe work practices
- Failure to prevent an assault
Jones Act vs. Worker’s Compensation
Under traditional worker’s comp statutes, employees can receive compensation for medical bills and lost wages, but, in doing so, they forfeit their right to sue their employers for negligence. Under the Jones Act, seamen retain the right to file a lawsuit, even if they’ve already received maintenance and cure payments, which is intended to cover medical bills and daily living expenses.
The Jones Act also differs from traditional personal injury cases in that the burden of causation is much lower. While personal injury plaintiffs must show that a defendant’s negligence was the main cause of their injuries, Jones Act workers need only prove that negligence played a part, however small, in causing their injuries. Even if the employer’s negligence was responsible for only one percent of a plaintiff’s injury, the court or jury may award damages.
Put simply, maritime employers are held to a higher standard than your average employer or personal injury defendant. That’s because maritime work can be dangerous, and seamen have the right to expect that their employer will do everything in their power to ensure the safety of the work environment.
What Constitutes an Unseaworthy Vessel?
The Jones Act isn’t the only piece of maritime law that protects seamen from the effects of unsafe work conditions. Injured workers can also file a lawsuit under general maritime law, which says that ship owners must maintain the seaworthiness of their vessels. If a plaintiff can prove that the owner failed in his or her duty, the seaman can receive compensation for any injuries caused by the oversight.
What does unseaworthy mean? When mariners speak of an “unseaworthy” vessel, they’re typically referring to a vessel that cannot stay afloat or navigate the waters for which it was designed. When maritime lawyers speak of an “unseaworthy” vessel, they generally mean an unsafe work environment. The legal definition of unseaworthy is, therefore, broader and more comprehensive than the standard definition.
In order to be considered seaworthy, a vessel’s hull, crew, and equipment must be up to the job. In other words, every component of the vessel must be adequately designed, maintained, and properly suited to its intended function.
Whereas an employer has the obligation under the Jones Act to maintain a safe work environment, it is the ship’s owner who must ensure the seaworthiness of the vessel. When owners don’t give their workers everything they need to do their job safely, they open themselves up to a lawsuit. If the plaintiff can show that the employer and the ship’s owner failed to do their duty, they may be able to recover damages from both parties in separate claims.
Unseaworthiness Does Not Equal Negligence
Under an unseaworthiness claim, injured workers do not have to prove negligence on the part of the owner; their lawyers must simply show that some part or aspect of the crew, vessel, or equipment was not reasonably fit for its purpose and caused the injury.
The legal principle of unseaworthiness derives from the concept of absolute duty, which states that owners must provide crewmembers with vessels that are in good working order and must maintain them so that they stay in working condition. That means ship owners have the duty and responsibility to replace old, defective, or outdated parts. They must also ensure that crew members are fully trained and qualified for the position they assume.
By way of example, you may be able to file a lawsuit on the grounds of unseaworthiness if you are injured because:
- A coworker with inadequate experience makes a mistake.
- An old piece of equipment fails or malfunctions.
- There weren’t enough crewmembers to perform the tasks at hand.
- An improperly maintained deck has become a hazard.
- Harmful cargo is not handled correctly.
- Dangerous conditions are allowed to flourish.
Maintenance and Cure
Under a long-held provision of maritime law, employers must pay for maintenance and cure any time one of their workers suffers an injury on the job, regardless of what or who caused the injury. Even if the worker himself is responsible for the accident, maritime law places the burden of care on the employer. The law consists of two separate components:
- Maintenance – The maintenance part of the law says that employers must cover day-to-day living expenses while the seaman in question recovers from the related injuries. Maintenance typically includes any essential expenses related to room and board, such as:
- Mortgage or rent
- Property taxes
- Homeowner’s insurance
While the law does not require employers to pay non-necessary expenses like cable, telephone, or internet, it does demand that they meet the injured worker’s household living expenses. No matter who is at fault for the injury or illness, employers should never get away with paying a negligible amount, such as $10 or $20 per day.
- Cure – This refers to the medical expenses incurred as a result of the work-related injury. As long as the medical care is deemed reasonable and necessary, the employer must cover the cost until the seaman fully recovers, or at least until the injured party has reached the point at which no further recovery is expected (called maximum medical improvement (MMI) in legal parlance).
Who Can Seek Compensation Under Maritime Law?
In order to take advantage of the protection offered by the Jones Act, you must first prove that you are a “seamen” as defined by the law. In order to qualify as a seaman, you must generally satisfy the following criteria:
- You must spend at least 30 percent of your time working on the vessel.
- You must contribute to the work of the vessel in some way.
- The vessel must be “in navigation” (afloat and capable of moving in navigable waters).
The complicated nature of the maritime industry sometimes makes it difficult to determine who is and who is not a seaman. Some cases are cut and dried (e.g., a fisherman who works on a commercial vessel or the driller on a drilling rig). Other cases fall into a legal gray area (e.g., a cook on a casino barge that floats in a manmade pond). No matter what the situation, untangling the intricacies of maritime law requires the help of a seasoned Jones Act lawyer in Houston.
Houston Jones Act Lawyer
Those who devote their lives to the nation’s maritime industry deserve protection. Fortunately, seamen have special legal rights that reflect the difficult and often hazardous conditions they face on a daily basis. At the very least, the law gives them the right to:
- A reasonably safe work environment.
- Sue employers for damages that resulted from negligence.
- Sue vessel owners for damages that resulted from unseaworthiness.
- Receive maintenance and cure.
Unfortunately, many of your average personal injury attorneys are unqualified to handle the legal complexities involved in an offshore injury case.
If you have been injured while working on a vessel, you’ll need the help of an experienced Houston offshore injury attorney who knows the ins and outs of maritime law. The Houston offshore injury lawyers at Johnson Garcia LLP have represented both major energy sector corporations and individual maritime workers. We know the business from the top down and the bottom up. Reach out to us and we’ll put our experience to work for you.