The Jones Act, United States Code, Title 46, § 30104, is a federal law which provides to a seaman the right of recovery for injuries caused in whole or in part by the negligence of his employer, its agents, or employees. O’Donnell v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 318 U.S. 36, 38-39, 63 S.Ct. 488, 490, 87 L.Ed. 596 (1943).
The Jones Act permits an injured seaman (see “Am I a Jones Act Seaman?“) to sue his employer for the negligence of any officer, agent, or employee of the employer, that causes the Jones Act Seaman to be injured.
In order to make a claim under the Jones Act, you have to be a “seaman” within the meaning of the Jones Act. The law on who qualifies as a Jones Act seaman — and who doesn’t— is complicated. A short summary of the law appears below. If you have been injured while working aboard any type of vessel on the water, you should consult with an experience maritime lawyer about your rights under Maritime Law.
The law on who qualifies as a Jones Act seaman is complicated, and whether you qualify as a Jones Act seaman depends on the particular facts of your case. Generally, an injured worker qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act if the worker is assigned to work aboard a vessel or fleet of vessels operated by his employer, spends a significant amount of his work time (30% or more) aboard the vessel, and the worker contributes to the work performed by the vessel. The employee must have a connection to the vessel (or identifiable group of vessels) that is substantial in terms of duration and nature. Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 368, 115 S.Ct. 2172, 2190, 132 L.Ed.2d 314 (1995). Even so, some workers have qualified as Jones Act seamen after only a day or two on the job. An employee does not have to eat or sleep aboard the vessel to qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act. Many different workers who work aboard vessels may qualify as Jones Act seamen. The waters that you work on can be an ocean, a bay, or a river. The vessel that you work on can be a cargo ship, tugboat, barge, dredge, fishing trawler, or even a floating platform. Examples of Jones Act seamen are:
- Merchant seaman on a cargo ship
- Deckhand on a tugboat
- Deckhand on a dredge
- Tankerman assigned to a tank barge
- Deckhand on a crane barge
- Pile driver doing marine construction from a barge
- Diver doing diving work from a vessel
Whether you qualify as a Jones Act seaman depends on the particular facts of your employment. The fact that your employer may be paying you workers’ compensation does not rule out the possibility that you are actually a Jones Act seaman entitled to Jones Act remedies.
The short answer is “yes,” you must prove some negligence by your employer and that this negligence was a cause of your injuries. Negligence is defined as:
Negligence is the failure to do what a reasonable and prudent person would ordinarily do under the circumstances or doing what such a person under the circumstances would not have done.
Tiller v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 318 U.S. 54, 67, 63 S.Ct. 444, 451, 87 L.Ed. 610 (1943). Under the Jones Act, a seaman may recover for the negligence of his employer, or the negligence of the captain, a mate, or fellow crew member. The employer’s basic duty is to provide the seaman a safe place to work. Martin v. Harris, 560 F.3d 210, 216 (4th Cir. 2009). The duty to provide a safe place to work extends beyond the vessel to any place where the seaman goes in service of the vessel. Hopson v. Texaco, Inc., 383 U.S. 262, 86 S.Ct. 765, 15 L.Ed. 2d 740 (1966). Failure to use reasonable care to provide the seaman a safe place to work is negligence. Negligence under the Jones Act can take many forms. Some examples are failure to maintain the vessel in a reasonably safe condition, failure to inspect the workplace, violation of a safety rule, failure to enforce safety rules, failure to give proper orders to perform a task, failure to provide suitable equipment or tools, failure to train the seaman properly, violation of a Coast Guard regulation, etc.
The Jones Act permits an injured seaman to recover compensation for physical injuries, physical pain, mental anguish, inconvenience, disability, loss of income, and loss of earning capacity, both for losses suffered to date and losses that are likely to be suffered in the future. In addition, a seaman may claim unpaid medical expenses under the Jones Act, or he may claim them under a cause of action for Cure. Fitzgerald v. U.S. Lines Co., 374 U.S. 16, 19, 83 S.Ct. 1646, 1649, 10 L.Ed.2d 720 (1963).
The answer is “yes,” but your damages will be reduced by how much the court or jury finds you to be at fault in comparison to how much they find your employer to be at fault. For example, if the jury finds you to be 30% at fault and your employer to be 70% at fault for the accident, you will be entitled to recover 70% of the damages which the jury awards you on the Jones Act claim. This method of apportioning fault is called “comparative fault” or “comparative negligence.” If a seaman is found to be entirely at fault for the accident, he cannot recover. Just because your employer may be placing all the blame for an accident on you, however, does not mean a jury will see it that way.
Your deadline for filing suit depends on who you were working for when you were hurt. The general statute of limitations period for all maritime torts, including claims for Jones Act negligence, unseaworthiness, and maintenance and cure, is 3 years. United States Code, Title 46, Section 30106 provides:
Except as otherwise provided by law, a civil action for damages for personal injury or death arising out of a maritime tort must be brought within 3 years after the cause of action arose.
WARNING: If you are a civilian merchant seaman working aboard a United States Naval Ship or aboard a privately-owned ship under charter to the Military Sealift Command, or if you are a crew member aboard a ship owned, operated or managed by any agency of the United States government, the correct defendant may be the United States. If the law deems the correct defendant to be the United States, suit must be brought within 2 years under the Suits in Admiralty Act (United States Code, Title 46, Section 30901, et seq.) and/or the Public Vessels Act (United States Code, Title 46, Section 31101, et seq.). In addition, the Clarification Act (United States Code, Title 50, Appendix, Section 1291) requires seamen working aboard a ship administered by the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) to file an administrative claim and have it disallowed before they can file suit within the 2 years limitations period. Under the Clarification Act (United States Code, Title 50, Appendix, Section 1291) and regulations there under, 46 CFR Part 327, the seaman must file his administrative claim in the proper form and with the proper person and then wait at least 60 days after the claim has been received by the proper person before the claim can be considered administratively disallowed, and he can file suit.
As you can see, deadlines in which to file suit in maritime cases can be tricky. If you’ve been injured, don’t wait around. Consult with an experienced maritime attorney now to protect your rights.