The Jones Act: Federal Relief For Seaman Work Injury And Death

Maritime work is precarious, and those who labor aboard ships, barges and offshore drilling rigs rely on their employers to provide safe workplaces in the face of the obvious risks inherent in working on the powerful ocean with a variety of dangerous, heavy machinery and equipment.

After World War I, the government wanted to modernize and enhance the U.S. shipping and maritime industries. As part of that effort, Congress enacted the Jones Act in 1920 to provide a federal legal remedy for the injury or death of a seaman in the course of his or her employment. Some of the key provisions include:

  • A seaman injured at work can sue his or her employer.
  • If a seaman dies from a work injury, the personal representative or executor of his or her estate has the right to file the lawsuit.
  • A Jones Act suit carries the right to a jury trial.
  • Legal remedies are limited for certain noncitizens and aliens.
  • In most situations, the time limit for bringing a Jones Act lawsuit is "within three years after the cause of action arose."
  • Federal law, rather than state law, applies to a Jones Act claim, although it can be brought in either state or federal court.

In essence, for the work-related injury or death of a seaman, the Jones Act replaces the traditional state workers' compensation or injured-worker claim with a federal remedy. The Jones Act is generally interpreted generously and liberally by the courts to bring aid to those the law is intended to benefit.

The Effect of FELA on Jones Act Claims

The Jones Act directs that a seaman has the same rights and remedies that injured railroad workers are granted by another federal statute, the Federal Employers' Liability Act of 1908, known as FELA, which is in effect incorporated into the Jones Act where applicable.

One of the most important provisions of FELA, and thereby of the Jones Act, is the requirement that at least part of the cause of the worker's injury or death be attributable to negligence on the part of the employer or its "officers, agents, or employees." In other words, if the negligent act of the employer or a fellow employee caused the injury, even if that negligence was only a slight part of the causation, the Jones Act remedies are available.

The negligence may also have caused "defect or insufficiency" in the employer's vessels, machinery or other equipment.

Contributory Negligence Will Not Bar a Jones Act Suit

When the maritime employee's own negligence contributed to his or her own injury or death, a Jones Act suit may still be brought, but the jury will normally reduce any award by the proportion that the claimant's own contributory negligence added to his injury. An exception to this rule is when the employer, often a ship owner, violated certain safety laws.

Jones Act Injury Damages

Potentially, a seaman may be entitled to these types of damages for his or her work-related injury:

  • Lost past and future wages, considering the severity of impairment and life expectancy of the injured worker
  • Pain, suffering, loss of the enjoyment of life and mental distress
  • Past and future medical bills

Death Claims

FELA provides that in a death claim brought by the deceased worker's personal representative, any lawsuit proceeds must benefit the surviving spouse and children. If no husband, wife or children survive the employee, then his or her parents are to be the beneficiaries. If no spouse, children or parents remain, then the suit should benefit "the next of kin dependent upon such employee."

The Jones Act allows the surviving beneficiaries to sue both for wrongful death damages for the financial support they lost when their loved one died, and for survival damages for the pain and suffering of the decedent before death.

In addition to those under the Jones Act, admiralty law may provide other legal remedies to injured seamen or the survivors of seamen killed on the job. Speak to an experienced Jones Act attorney if you are injured or a loved one killed in the course of maritime work.