Maritime Law and the Jones Act

A Decatur Jones Act attorney can help you settle your
maritime personal injury case

The Jones Act was enacted in 1920 and was designed to protect American seamen who had been injured or become ill while at work at sea. Technically called the “Merchant Marine Act of 1920,” the act enables eligible sailors harmed in accidents or by disease to recover damages from their employers.

If it can be proven that a ship’s captain, a fellow sailor, or a company employee acted in a negligent manner, and that negligence brought harm to a sailor, then the sailor can file a lawsuit against that individual and/or company. The owners of certain vessels, even if they are not connected with the companies who employ the sailors, may also be sued if the injury was caused by the unsafe or shoddy condition of the vessel. Regardless of the type of injury or its severity, a sailor is due certain living and medical expenses under the tenets of the Jones Act.

 

Who Qualifies for Jones Act Protection?

The terms “sailor” and “seaman” are used loosely these days, but the simple truth is that not everyone who works on or near water in Alabama will qualify under the Jones Act. While the act stipulates that it applies only to “seamen,” no legal definition is given for that term. A Jones Act attorney must look to precedent cases to determine what sailors or seamen qualify for the law’s protections. 

In federal court, the word seaman is often used to denote someone who is attached to a ship or a flotilla of ships which work in “navigable waters.” This isn’t limited to the ocean—any waterway which could be used for foreign or domestic commercial boat traffic qualifies. Several of Alabama’s rivers are broad and deep enough for maritime trade.

Also, the individual in question must be involved with the vessel’s purpose. A simple dock worker who is injured while repainting a fishing vessel wouldn’t qualify for Jones Act protection, but a fisherman serving aboard the ship in the Gulf Coast would. The individual’s job description must somehow assist or further the vessel’s stated purpose, no matter how unimportant that job description may be. A deckhand qualifies for Jones Act protection as surely as the captain does. 

Finally, to be counted as a “seaman,” the individual must spent a “significant” amount of time on the ship—not less than 30%, according to the ruling of one federal court. While this is not a hard-and-fast amount to live by, it is still required that an employee spend a significant amount of time aboard the ship upon which they are employed. The vagueness of this qualification is yet another reason why injured seamen should seek the counsel of a Jones Act attorney if they’ve been injured. 

 

Proving Negligence in Maritime Injury Claims

While worker’s compensation suits work well to protect the rights of land-bound laborers, merchant sailors and seamen are subject to different rules and regulations. The Jones Act gives maritime workers a chance to prove the negligence of their employees or coworkers and recover damages for their injuries.

As with personal injury suits on land, the key word to remember is negligence. If someone takes an unnecessary risk, intentionally disregards safety regulations, or isn’t properly doing his or her job (say, monitoring the operation of critical machinery or systems), and that breach of conduct causes injury to another human being, the first individual can be sued for damages. 

Occasionally, it isn’t necessarily the negligent action of another human being which injures sailors. Sometimes it’s the poor condition of the vessel itself. An “unseaworthiness” doctrine is applied to cases where seamen are injured by the poor state of the vessel they’re working on. The owner or interest-holding organization of a vessel may be sued if the vessel has mechanical or structural problems, has faulty safety equipment, hasn’t been properly maintained or repaired, or isn’t crewed by competent people. Tort law means that a sailor can recover the same sort of damages from an unseaworthiness case that they could in a negligence case. 

There are several types of damages injured sailors may claim in a civil suit—economic (medical bills, inability to earn money, lost income) and non-economic (pain and suffering). 

 

“Maintenance and Cure”

Maintenance and cure doctrines are the rough equivalent of workmen’s compensation on land. They allow sailors to collect compensation for injuries, but do not take the behavior of the ship owner or their employer into account, meaning that the money recovered will be much less. The seaman’s lawyer must only prove that the seaman’s injuries were related to their work. Maintenance and cure compensation will cover a seaman’s medical bills until they recover. These can be collected in addition to a civil suit for unseaworthiness or negligence.  


Why Retain a Jones Act Attorney? 

It’s rare to find an attorney who specializes in Jones Act cases, as this is considered a specialization even among lawyers who focus on maritime law. You need expert legal representation, thorough experience, and aggressive negotiation skills on your side if you intend to sue your employer or a ship owner under the Jones Act. If you or a loved one has contracted an illness while serving at sea or been injured in a maritime accident, get in touch with the veteran Jones Act attorneys at The Reeves Law Firm. We represent accident victims in Huntsville, Decatur, Alabama, and Tennessee. Call us today at 256.355.3311 for a free consultation.

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