Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

The Jones Act and Merchant Marines

The Jones Act is an essential law that protects maritime workers, like those on tugboats, rigs, and barges. You should understand the Jones Act if you work at sea and have suffered a personal injury. It can help with medical expenses, lost wages, and other issues related to an injury.

This guide will take you through key points of this important law.

Background of the Jones Act

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 is the Jones Act. The Jones Act is part of the general maritime law. It's a federal law that protects seamen and maritime employees if they get injured at sea. Before this act, maritime workers had limited rights. They had little help with medical bills and other expenses for injuries on the job. The Jones Act brought a much-needed change by holding vessel owners and maritime employers responsible for the well-being of their workers.

The law lays out the legal framework for the U.S. merchant marine. One of its most important functions is to protect mariners injured at sea. These workers do not qualify for workers' compensation under maritime law. Generally speaking, "merchant marine" refers to the fleet of commercial ships that deliver goods to and from other nations during peacetime, as opposed to military vessels. But, the U.S. government can commission these ships to deliver troops and military supplies during a war.

While the Jones Act covers various aspects of the merchant marine, this article focuses on provisions allowing injured crew members to sue their employers. For related information, see FindLaw's Workers' Compensation section, including I Have a Job-Related Injury: What are My Employer's Responsibilities?

Who Does the Jones Act Cover?

The Jones Act covers people working on vessels like tugboats, barges, and rigs. This includes seamen's injury or wrongful death cases that happen at sea. If you work on a seaworthy vessel and have suffered an injury, the Jones Act may help you get needed support.

Private mariners importing or exporting goods, primarily in a commercial setting, are considered part of the merchant marine. Since terrestrial law does not apply to employees at sea, including workers' compensation protections, this act allows seafaring employees to sue their employers for injuries.

Those covered by the Jones Act include masters, captains, officers, and crew members who spend at least 30% of their work time on a "vessel in navigation" or group of vessels under common ownership. A vessel in navigation is afloat, operational, capable of moving, and on navigable waters. For instance, a ship tied to a dock would be "in navigation."

If you don't meet the 30 % threshold for coverage under the Jones Act, your job falls under the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act.

How the Jones Act Protects Employees at Sea

The Jones Act protects in many ways. If vessel owners maintain an "unseaworthiness" condition, they can be accountable. Injured workers may be eligible for workers' compensation benefits. These benefits can cover medical care and even future medical expenses. If you have lost earning capacity, the Jones Act can also help you recover the money you would have made without the injury.

The Jones Act requires a mariner's employer (such as a shipping company) to provide a reasonably safe working environment. If the captain or any other employee is negligent for another employee's injuries, the employer may be liable and sued by the injured party.

Examples of unsafe conditions or situations that may trigger liability include:

  • Insufficient training of captain or crew
  • Oily or slippery substances on the ship deck
  • Assault or battery by a fellow crew member
  • Badly maintained equipment
  • Failure to provide the crew with the proper equipment

For instance, suppose a crew member mops the floor and fails to place a "caution" sign for the slippery area. If another crew member slips and suffers a torn ligament due to the deck conditions, the injured party may sue their employer for the injury.

Benefits Under the Jones Act

The Jones Act offers "maintenance and cure" benefits. "Maintenance benefits" cover daily living expenses, while "cure benefits" cover medical bills. These benefits last until you recover or reach the best possible health condition. Your Jones Act lawsuit may also include compensation for disfigurement and mental anguish.

You can expect support for lost wages and medical expenses. Your earning capacity will be considered in the compensation. If a loved one has suffered a wrongful death, the Jones Act may even include support for funeral expenses.

Distinguishing the Jones Act from Workers' Compensation and FECA

To seek compensation for your injuries, you should understand the difference between the Jones Act, typical workers' compensation, and the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA). The Jones Act specifically caters to maritime workers. It considers the maritime industry's unique dangers and working conditions.

Under the Jones Act, injured maritime workers can sue maritime employers for negligence, unseaworthiness, or wrongful death. They can claim compensation for lost wages, future medical expenses, mental anguish, and more. Including maintenance and cure benefits sets it apart from other compensation methods.

Workers' compensation is a state-level system. It benefits injured employees without considering who is at fault for the injury. Unlike the Jones Act, it doesn't allow the worker to sue the employer for negligence. This system applies to many employees, not just those in the maritime industry.

FECA is specifically for federal employees. FECA provides compensation for workers injured in the course of their employment. It includes lawsuits for medical expenses and lost wages. But, FECA doesn't allow lawsuits against the employer for negligence or unseaworthiness. FECA doesn't consider maritime workers' unique challenges as the Jones Act does.

The Jones Act recognizes the specific risks and needs of maritime workers. It offers a more comprehensive support system, including the right to sue for negligence and maintenance and cure benefits. In contrast, workers' comp and FECA have a more generalized approach. They don't provide the same level of protection or compensation for maritime employees as the Jones Act.

How To File a Claim Under the Jones Act

You must file a federal court claim if you have suffered a maritime injury. Your claim can be for compensation for a variety of injuries. You can get compensation for mental anguish, disfigurement, and medical expenses.

Unlike typical injury claims, the plaintiff in a Jones Act claim only has to show that the employer's negligence played some role in the injury, no matter how minor. So, if the crew member who slipped on the deck was also negligent, they still could file a claim if the slippery conditions were just one cause of the injury.

The process for injury claims under the Jones Act involves the following:

  1. Report the injury to your supervisor (such as the captain) within seven days
  2. Make an official statement about the injury and who is at fault by filling out an accident report
  3. Seek medical treatment as soon as possible (any relevant medical records will be helpful for your claim)
  4. Settle claim or file a lawsuit against your employer

An experienced maritime attorney or Jones Act lawyer can guide you through this process. They can give legal advice and protect your rights.

Talk to an Attorney Before Filing a Jones Act Claim

Talking to a maritime lawyer or Jones Act attorney before filing a claim for your work-related injury is crucial. Personal injury cases are complex. Professional guidance is key. A maritime attorney can review your situation, whether it is a wrongful death or another maritime accident. They can give you essential advice.

If you suffered injuries while working on a sea vessel, an experienced attorney can help you get the compensation you deserve.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified workers' compensation attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options