The Jones Act: Injury Lawsuits By Ship's Crew Members

The Jones Act is a seaman's exclusive remedy for job-related injury. Get the details on the law and how it works.

The Jones Act is a federal law that, among other things, gives a seaman who was injured in the course of his employment the right to sue his employer for personal injury damages. In order to recover damages from his employer, the seaman must prove that the owner and/or crew of the vessel that the seaman worked on were negligent, and that their negligence was a cause of the seaman’s injury. An injured seaman may not file a workers’ compensation claim against his/her employer. Seamen are not entitled to workers’ compensation under either state or federal law. Read on to get an idea of how claims work under the Jones Act.

Who Is A Seaman?

A seaman is a person who serves on a vessel (any kind of ship or boat) such as the captain or a crew member. Because seamen often go to sea for weeks or months at a time, they tend to work very unusual schedules, such as three weeks on, three weeks off, or even three months on, three months off. However, if only part of a seaman’s work for an employer is on a vessel, the seaman may not have the right to file a lawsuit under the Jones Act. Part time seamen must spend at least 30% of the time that they work for their employer as a captain or crew member on a vessel in order to be considered seamen under the Jones Act.

Dock workers and shipbuilders are not covered by the Jones Act, and must make their injury claims under The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act.

What Type of Negligence Can The Seaman Sue The Employer For?

The employer is liable under the Jones Act for the negligence of any of the employer’s officers, agents, or employees. The Jones Act requires an employer of a seaman to:

  • provide the seaman with a reasonably safe place to work
  • use ordinary care under the circumstances to maintain and keep the vessel on which the seaman works in a reasonably safe condition.

The Jones Act is a very employee-friendly law. It places a great burden on a seaman’s employer to ensure that seaman’s vessel is reasonably safe. An employer can be held liable under the Jones Act for all types of unsafe conditions on a vessel such as:

  • grease or oil on the deck
  • breakage of equipment
  • improperly maintained equipment
  • the employer’s failure to provide the crew members with the proper equipment for them to do their work
  • improper training of the seaman or of the crew in general
  • unsafe work methods
  • negligence of the seaman’s co-workers
  • assault by a co-worker

The Seaman’s Lessened Burden Of Proving Causation Under The Jones Act

In all negligence cases, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Proximate cause is a legal term that has different definitions throughout the country, but it usually means something like the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligence played a substantial part in causing the plaintiff's injury.

However, under the Jones Act, a plaintiff's burden for proving that the defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury is considerably lower than that of a standard negligence case. In order to prove causation under the Jones Act, the plaintiff need only prove that the employer’s negligence played any part -- however small -- in the plaintiff's injuries. Courts around the country have written that the plaintiff’s burden of proving causation under the Jones Act is "featherweight."

This lowered standard of causation is another example of why the Jones Act is a very employee-friendly law. The Jones Act’s lowered standard of causation makes it much easier for an injured seaman and his/her lawyer to prove that he/she was injured by a dangerous condition on board a vessel. Because of this unusual law on causation, the injured seaman only has to show that there was one negligent condition on the vessel that played a small part in his/her injury.

Damages Under The Jones Act

An injured seaman is entitled to the usual types of damages in a personal injury case, such as damages for lost earnings and lost earning capacity, past and future medical expenses, pain, suffering, and mental anguish. Some courts also allow the seaman to be awarded interest on his/her damages.

Where Can A Seaman File A Jones Act Lawsuit?

A seaman can file a Jones Act lawsuit in either state or federal court in either the state where the accident happened or in the state where the defendant(s) live or are headquartered. Jones Act lawsuits are complicated, so, if you think that you might have a case under the Jones Act, you should contact a lawyer.

How Long Does a Seaman Have to File A Lawsuit Under the Jones Act?

A lawsuit under the Jones Act must be filed within three years of the date of the injury. If you are uncertain as to the date of your injury, or if you believe that you suffered multiple or ongoing injuries while serving on your ship, you should contact a Jones Act lawyer immediately.

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