The Jones Act is a federal statute enacted in 1920 which established a negligence remedy against a seaman's employer for the injury or death of a seaman. The Jones Act specifically incorporates the rights and remedies extended to railroad workers by the Federal Employees Liability Act ("FELA").
Thus the Jones Act and the FELA are two of the very few circumstances in which an employee can sue his employer for the negligence of the employer or the employee's co-workers, and not be limited to inadequate workers’ compensation laws.
What are the Benefits of Filing Suit Under the Jones Act?
There is a low burden of causation under the Jones Act. Unlike other types of cases where a plaintiff may be required to prove that the defendant’s negligence was the main cause of the plaintiff’s injury, under the Jones Act, the burden of proof is much lower. The plaintiff must only prove that the employer was negligent in any part in the plaintiff’s injuries.
In addition to permitting a seaman to file suit against his or her employer or co-employees for negligence, under the Jones Act, the seaman has the election to bring the case in either state or federal court. Further, the seaman has the election whether to have his case heard by a jury or judge. This choice can be beneficial depending on the jurisdiction where the case is filed as some judges are extremely knowledgeable and favorable to the rights of an injured seaman.
Another advantage to being a Jones Act seaman is that the Jones Act and Maritime Law pre-empt state laws. For example, where state law may dictate a short statute of limitations in which to bring a case, maritime law may extend the time to bring a lawsuit. Additionally, in states like Alabama which have laws that prevent recovery if the Plaintiff is found even 1% at fault, federal maritime law overrides this rule so that the Plaintiff may recover.
Who is a "Seaman"?
The key to seaman status is the employment-related connection to a vessel in navigation. It is not necessary that a seaman aid in navigation or contribute to the navigation of the vessel, but a seaman must be doing the ship's work. This means that the definition of seaman may be considerably broader than those who actually navigate the vessel or maintain the vessel's engines. It can also apply in certain cases to those who contribute to the function of the vessel but not to its navigation, such as hotel staff workers aboard cruise ships, hair dressers, bartenders, musicians, and even dealers on gambling vessels. Generally, 30% of the employee’s employment must be spent on a vessel or in a specific fleet of vessels before he/she will qualify as a seaman.
What Type of Vessels are we Talking About?
A "vessel" is every watercraft or other artificial contrivance used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water. This is a very broad definition, and can include, among others, river towboats, ocean-going tugs and tows, cruise liners, fishing vessels, harbour tugs, ocean-going commercial vessels from cargo vessels to supertankers, oil exploration vessels such as drilling ships, semi-submersible vessels, jack-up rigs, pile-driving vessels, dredges, crewboats and offshore supply vessels, and virtually any other type of craft capable of being used for transportation on the waters. The category is even broad enough to include pleasure vessels.
Is it Necessary that the Vessel be a Commercial Vessel?
No, for example, if a private owner of a sailing yacht were to hire a crew member to work a specific race aboard that yacht, that crew member would be a Jones Act seaman. This would be true even if the yacht also carried other persons that had not been hired to work aboard the vessel and were not considered Jones Act seamen.men.
How is it Determined if a Vessel is "in Navigation"?
A vessel is considered “in navagation” if it is afloat; in operation, capable of moving, and situated on navigable waters. A vessel doesn’t actually have to be moving in water; rather it has must be capable of moving under its own power or being sailed. Vessels that are in a drydock or out of the water are not considered “in navagation” and injuries sustained under such circumstances will likely fall under the Longshoreman and Harbor Worker’s Act. Similarly, oil drilling fixed platforms, although capable of floating or being used as a barge are not considered vessels “in navigation.”
What Laws Apply to the "Seaman"?
Generally, seamen are covered under both the General Maritime Law of the United States, and under Federal Statutes, such as the Jones Act. It is not entirely clear whether the test for seaman status is the same for the purposes of the Jones Act and general maritime law, as the question has not been squarely addressed by the United States Supreme Court. However, it is clear that many crew members may qualify for Jones Act seaman status because they contribute to the function of the vessel but not its navigation, such as hotel staff workers and those mentioned above.
What Damages can be Recovered?
An injured worker can recover wages lost from the time of injury to the time of trial, future expected wage losses, past medical expenses not paid by the employer, future medical expenses and compensation for pain, suffering, and mental anguish in the past and in the future. Punitive damages may be recoverable for failure of the employer to meet its duty to provide maintenance and cure.
What if the Seaman Dies as a Result of the Injury
A seaman’s cause of action does not die with the seaman. Benefits are available to the surviving spouse and children. A personal representative of the seaman’s estate can bring a claim against the employer.
What Rights Does a Seaman Have Under General Maritime Law?
An injured seaman is entitled under the General Maritime Law to certain remedies, including maintenance (a daily amount for subsistence during recuperation), cure (medical care), unearned wages to the end of the voyage or employment contract, and repatriation (return to the seaman's home port in the event that he is injured overseas). The general maritime law also provides a tort remedy based on unseaworthiness, a type of strict liability.
What do the Terms "Maintenance" and "Cure" Mean?
A seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure when injured or taken ill while in the “service of a vessel,” which may include injuries which occur while the vessel is at port and the seaman is shoreside. This right is broader than under most workers compensation schemes in that the injury or illness need not necessarily be work related under the general maritime law. It is sufficient if the illness manifests itself during the time that the seaman was in the service of the vessel. For example, a seaman who has appendicitis is entitled to have both his medical bills and maintenance paid until he reaches Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI) following surgery even though the appendicitis was in no way caused by his work conditions nor was it a condition that is traditionally considered "work related" under most workers compensation schemes.
MAINTENANCE is designed to provide the ill or injured seaman with compensation sufficient to pay for care, including lodging expenses. The amount of maintenance to which the seaman is entitled is a factual question, but is often said to be in replacement of the cost to the employer of the food and lodging of the seaman while he was aboard a vessel.
Traditionally, seamen have been paid $8 - $10 per day maintenance. Fortunately, courts have ruled that the amount of maintenance paid should equal the seaman’s household expenses. Thus, an employer may not arbitrarily choose how much maintenance to pay and expect that its duty has been met.
The obligation of the employer to pay maintenance and cure terminates when MMI has been reached or the injured person is a good as he or she is going to get. If a condition is incurable, the obligation to pay maintenance and cure ends when it is determined that the sickness or incapacity is permanent.
CURE means that the employer is obligated to pay the injured seaman's reasonable medical expenses up until the time of MMI. A seaman has the right to select his own physicians and method of treatment, which contrasts with the normal right of the employer to select the physicians under workers compensation schemes.
The obligation of cure is not merely to reimburse an injured seaman for medical expenses. The employer must also make arrangements for the seaman to obtain medical care if the seaman is not in a position to do so.
What are Unearned Wages?
An injured seaman is entitled to unearned wages from the time of incapacity to the end of the voyage or the termination of the shipping articles. Shipping articles are generally signed for overseas trips and an injured seaman who does not complete the term of the articles is entitled to be paid through the end of the articles. In coastwise shipping, it is customary to sign on crew members for a specified period of time and recovery of wages until the end of that term generally is granted.
If tip income is a significant component of a seaman's wages, average tip income must be included in calculating unearned wages. This is particularly important in cruise line cases.
Unearned wage claims are rare because a seaman typically has claims for negligence under the Jones Act and for unseaworthiness under the General Maritime Law, both of which permit recovery for lost income.
What Does "Unseaworthiness" Mean?
The first avenue for recovery for seamen is under the Jones Act. The second theory of recovery is under the maritime doctrine known as “unseaworthiness”. The “warranty” of seaworthiness imposed on a vessel owner or operator is an absolute and non-delegable duty to provide a vessel that is fit for its intended purposes or intended voyage. . The mere happening of an accident is not evidence of unseaworthiness, but when a breach of the warranty causes injury or death, the vessel and its owner can be found liable.
The duty to provide a vessel that is reasonably safe extends to all parts of the vessel and to almost all facets of its operation. The fact that the unseaworthy condition occurred after the vessel left port is immaterial. It is no excuse that the vessel owner had no notice or opportunity to correct the condition that caused the injury.
What Conditions Make a Vessel "Unseaworthy"?
The warranty of seaworthiness extends to all parts of the vessel, including the hull, appliances, gear and equipment, even the vessel's crew. Indeed, unfit crew members constitute just as much of a hazard as unfit gear.
Temporary conditions such as oil, water, or ice on the deck may constitute transitory unseaworthiness. These conditions are often recent and there is no knowledge of the condition, either actual or constructive, on the part of the vessel owner. However, the vessel owner's knowledge of the condition is not material to whether or not the vessel was unseaworthy. In a classic case, the plaintiff was a crew member of a fishing trawler. During the unloading of the catch, fish spawn and slime had covered the deck and railing. The plaintiff, who was attempting to get off the vessel, put his foot on the rail, slipped, and was injured. The Court held that it did not matter that the condition arose after the voyage began. Also, the lack of constructive or actual knowledge of the condition by the owner or the lack of an opportunity to correct it was no defense.
Where is the Lawsuit Filed for my Claim of Unseaworthiness or for Negligence under the Jones Act?
A seaman may sue the seaman's employer under the Jones Act in either Federal Court or in State Court. If the case is originally brought in the State Court, the defendant may not remove the case to the Federal Court. However, even if the case is brought in the State Court, the Federal Maritime Law applies to the State claim.
A claim for "unseaworthiness" may also be brought in the same case as the plaintiff's Jones Act suit.
If the seaman were to bring only an unseaworthiness claim in the Federal Court, this would be an admiralty action and there would be no right to a jury trial. However, if the seaman also couples the unseaworthiness claim with a claim for negligence under the Jones Act in the Federal Court, then he may ask for a jury trial as to both claims. Again, as in the State cases, the seaman's right to elect a jury trial or a Judge trial is the controlling factor.
What is the Statute of Limitations for Maritime Claims?
If you don't file your claim in court within 3 years from the date of your injury, and you haven't settled your claim out of court, you will be forever barred from recovering any damages for your injuries. This is true whether the claim is based on Jones Act or general maritime law, with the exception of non-employee injuries occurring on cruise ships which must be filed within one year of the injury. If the injury occurs on a government vessel, the claim must be filed or settled within two years.