Working on an ocean-going vessel can be hazardous work. Injuries and deaths are common occurrences. In almost every state, injured workers are entitled to recover damages for their injuries under various workers’ compensations acts, but because seamen work on the ocean, they are not considered eligible for workers’ compensation benefits under state law.
In 1920, Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act, now better known as the “Jones Act.” This law imposed many requirements on ships operating into and out of American ports. One of its most important provisions is the section giving seamen the right to sue if they suffer an injury while working on an ocean-going ship.
The basics of the Jones Act
The act requires that ship owners provide adequate and reasonable food, shelter and medical care to individuals who suffer an injury (or are killed) while working on a maritime vessel.
The injury must occur on navigable waters. Virtually every class of seamen are covered by this provision, including sailors, deckhands, divers, mechanics, drillers, stewards, mates, cooks, fishermen, captains and pilots. If the owner fails to meet this obligation, the injured seaman may bring a lawsuit to recover damages in any court, state or federal, of his choice. The claimant need not prove the owner’s negligence, only that the injury occurred on a ship sailing in navigable waters.
What kind of damages can be recovered?
An injured seaman can ask the court to order compensation for physical injuries, mental pain and suffering, lost wages, and medical costs. If the claimant can prove that the employer knew that the vessel was unseaworthy or that the owner acted recklessly, the seaman may recover punitive damages.
Seeking the help of a maritime attorney
Anyone who suffers an injury that may be covered by the Jones Act should immediately report the injury to the captain of the vessel or the seaman’s supervisor. Jones Act claims must be made within 7 days, and prompt action is essential. Anyone with questions about proceeding under the Jones Act may wish to consult an experienced maritime attorney for advice.