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An Overview of the Jones Act

Seamen have always toiled in a dangerous line of work, one in which the threat of serious injury and death can take many forms, some of them very difficult to foresee or properly prepare for. A seemingly safe cargo area fills with dangerous gases without warning; weather conditions at sea abruptly take a turn for the worse; heavy machinery suddenly slides out of position. These are just a few of the potentially dangerous on-the-job scenarios that can arise in the maritime industry.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past, however, when seamen labored under conditions of employment that were even more arduous than those of the contemporary world. As recently as a hundred years ago, maritime workers who became injured in connection with their duties had little recourse (apart from traditional maintenance and cure) when it came to obtaining due compensation for their suffering.

In personal injury cases, the courts generally sided with maritime employers. This changed with the passage of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, otherwise known as the Jones Act, a far-reaching, multifaceted piece of legislation that has gone through multiple modifications over the years and remains a major part of maritime law.

For maritime personnel, knowledge of the Jones Act is essential, as it touches on many aspects of this industry, including personal injury matters. Let’s take a look at the Jones Act in greater detail.

Overview of the Jones Act

What Is in the Jones Act?

The primary impetus behind the passage of the Jones Act was the desire to strengthen and protect the U.S. maritime sector. To achieve this goal, the Act places regulations on a number of important activities in the maritime industry.

For example, the statute safeguards “coastwise” maritime trade within U.S. waters by barring foreign vessels from being involved in such activity. This means that any ship or vessel that transports cargo from one U.S. port to another (including the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico) must be American-made and fly the U.S. flag. Therefore, foreign vessels transporting goods to a U.S. port must fully offload their cargo at that point—they cannot simply continue on to another port on U.S. territory.

In this respect, the Jones Act could be viewed as an extension of the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886, which applied similar protectionist regulations on passenger vessels (such as cruise ships).

These restrictions on foreign ships can be temporarily waived in the interest of national security; this happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005) when the Department of Homeland Security briefly allowed foreign vessels with gas and oil cargo to engage in coastwise trade.

Promoting national defense is another key component of the Jones Act. In the event of war or national emergency, it is critical for the country to be able to marshal the maritime industry immediately to contend with any emerging threats to the nation. Keeping foreign vessels out of coastwise trade activities, and thus preventing the U.S. maritime industry from becoming reliant on potentially hostile or uncooperative states, is central to protecting this ability.

The aforementioned aspects of the Jones Act continue to play an important role in regulating the maritime sector in the United States, but the section of the Act that is most relevant to us at Schechter, McElwee, Shaffer & Harris, and to which we will devote the remainder of this discussion, is the part that governs personal injury claims: “A seaman injured in the course of employment or, if the seaman dies from the injury, the personal representative of the seaman may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer” (46 U.S.C. 30104).

Thanks to the Jones Act, the right of a seaman to sue an employer has been a fundamental element of U.S. maritime law since 1920, although the text of the law has been modified at various junctures over the years. There is far more to this law than merely the right to sue, however—the Jones Act establishes certain conditions that a plaintiff must fulfill in order to prevail in a court action. That’s what we’ll look at in the following sections.

The Issue of Negligence

The Issue of Negligence

As you may already realize, maritime law has traditionally provided “maintenance and cure” to injured seamen. This was true well before the arrival of the Jones Act. This is a form of compensation that consists of two parts: Payments intended to provide a minimum level of financial support (maintenance), and reimbursement for medical expenses (cure).

What is important to understand about maintenance and cure is that it is paid out regardless of liability. There is no need to establish who was at fault for the injury or to what degree they were at fault.

The problem with all this, however, is that the funds provided by maintenance and cure tend to fall far short of what many injured seaman feel that they deserve, especially if they have sustained physical harm of a permanent character. The Jones Act allows them to seek suitable compensation—but it also requires them to prove that their injuries resulted from their employer’s negligence.

What constitutes negligence under the Jones Act? The law imposes penalties on maritime employers who fail to exercise “reasonable care” in the maintenance of their vessel and the conditions that seamen are expected to function under.

Employers should not do—or fail to do—anything that a reasonable person might expect to result in harm to personnel. Examples include failure to maintain a seaworthy ship or to provide adequate safety equipment or training.

In order to win damages in a Jones Act case, the plaintiff must be able to show that the employer was negligent.

Causation

Another important element of a Jones Act claim is causation—that is, it must be shown that the employer’s actions or inactions caused or somehow led to the injury. It’s not enough to demonstrate that the employer was negligent; that isn’t relevant to the case unless such negligence can be connected to the accident in some way.

Fortunately for wounded seamen, the Jones Act observes the standard of “featherweight causation.” This simply means that any degree of liability—anything above zero percent—on the part of the employer puts them on the hook for personal injury damages. Even if the seaman is considered mostly responsible for his condition, the employer will be held liable for their partial contribution to the accident.

Comparative Negligence

Featherweight causation doesn’t mean employer negligence is treated irrespective of the degree of liability. The courts recognize that an employer who is only partly responsible for an injury should not be judged on the same basis as one who is fully responsible.

In Jones Act cases, the courts determine monetary awards by assigning relative blame to each party. For instance, the court may judge the plaintiff to be 75% responsible for their injury, with the defendant 25% responsible. Under the doctrine of featherweight causation, this means that the defendant will be held liable for the accident, even though they weren’t the primary cause of it.

However, the plaintiff’s 75% responsibility for their injury will be taken into account when determining their compensation. If the court determines that the injury is worth $1 million, this award will be reduced by 75%, leaving the seaman with only $250,000.

There is another aspect of comparative negligence that bears mention: negligence per se. This means that an employer will automatically be held 100% responsible if the accident resulted from their violation of a safety-related regulation.

Who Is a Seaman?

View an overview of the Jones Act

One aspect of the Jones Act that has caused persistent controversy over the years is its definition of “seaman.” The law provides seamen with a number of rights, which we have enumerated earlier on this page, but sometimes it isn’t clear who really counts as a seaman under the Jones Act. In general, the courts have tended to recognize personnel who perform duties essential to the navigational needs of the vessel (whether a boat, freighter, tanker, barge, or similar watercraft) and who were employed for a significant length of time.

This is a confusing and sometimes contentious issue, and it’s best to consult an experienced maritime law firm to help you determine whether you have a valid case. Call 713-364-0723 to reach out to the experienced legal team at Schechter, McElwee, Shaffer & Harris. We’re available 24/7.