The Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is a federal statute that, in part, gives those persons who have been injured while working at sea the ability to bring a personal injury claim against their employer.
In general, the Jones Act applies to work-related accidents on the high seas and navigable waters of the United States, including coastal areas and inland waterways like lakes and rivers. It covers seamen employed on waterborne vessels such as barges, tug boats, dredges, fishing boats and even offshore oil rigs, depending on the type of rig.
The Jones Act only applies to those who work on the water — that is, doing work that contributes to the function of a vessel — and should not be confused with the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). These two laws are mutually exclusive and were written to provide legal remedies to two different categories of maritime employees. Any accidents involving maritime-related employees such as harbor workers, dock workers, shipbuilders, etc. are covered by the LHWCA.
Miles v. Apex Marine, 498 U.S.19, decided in 1990, involved the death of a crew member whose nondependent mother sued under the Jones Act for negligence and unseaworthiness of a vessel. While the decision had nothing to do with punitive damages, some courts have cited it in restricting punitive damage recoveries for crew members and others.
Contrary to general maritime law, which does not give plaintiffs the right to a jury trial, the Jones Act explicitly states that a trial by jury is available in the case of civil action. It also gives plaintiffs the option to have their case heard in federal or state court. Plaintiffs may seek pecuniary losses, which essentially cover lost earnings and lost earning capacity, past and future medical expenses, pain, suffering, and mental anguish. However, courts do not often view the Jones Act as allowing for punitive damages.
"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."
Besides the job of the individual, a variety of factors can affect whether someone qualifies for compensation under the Jones Act, such as where the accident occurred, whether the accident occurred on-the-job while the victim was working as a seaman, and if the employer can even be held liable for the accident. The Jones Act is also unique in that it requires negligence by the employer (or a co-worker) must be proven by the plaintiff before compensation can be secured. This detail can complicate Jones Act cases and can limit injured workers’ sources of financial recovery.
It is vital, then, that all liability factors are explored and investigated to discover the responsible party and pinpoint the negligent action, or actions, that led to the accident. Liability factors can include improper or insufficient training of crew members, a failure to hire qualified harbor workers, inadequate safety equipment, poor vessel maintenance, and a failure to follow or enforce safety procedures.
Partner Daniel Rose represented one of the 33 seamen lost in the El Faro tragedy, an American cargo ship that sank off the coast of the Bahamas in a hurricane. To prove negligence, attorneys had to examine several questions, such as: why the captain decided to leave port into a strengthening storm while other vessels were pulling into port to wait it out; if there was pressure from the shipowners to leave port; and if the ship’s age, maintenance and safety were issues. Ultimately, the case was settled even though the shipowners attempted to block the families’ claims and limit liability. These actions are commonly taken by defendants in maritime litigation, and it takes experienced attorneys to overcome such challenges.
Finally, the Jones Act sets a three-year statute of limitations, meaning the injured party must file a claim no less than three years from the date the injury occurred or else they lose their right to litigate.