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The Jones Act and Merchant Marines

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, more commonly known as the Jones Act, lays out the legal framework for the U.S. Merchant Marine. One of its most important functions is to protect mariners injured at sea, since they are not qualified for workers' compensation under maritime law. Generally speaking, the term "Merchant Marine" refers to the fleet of commercial ships that delivers goods to and from other nations during peacetime, as opposed to military vessels. However, these ships may be commissioned by the U.S. government to deliver troops and military supplies in a time of war.

While the Jones Act covers various aspects of the Merchant Marine, this article focuses on provisions that allow injured seaman 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 is Covered by the Jones Act?

Private mariners involved in the import or export of goods, primarily in a commercial setting, are considered part of the Merchant Marine. Since terrestrial law doesn't apply to employees at sea, including workers' compensation protections, this act provides a way for 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 percent of their work time on a "vessel in navigation" or group of vessels under common ownership. A vessel in navigation is one that is afloat, operational, capable of moving, and on navigable waters. For instance, a ship tied to a dock would be considered "in navigation."

If you don't meet the 30 percent threshold required for coverage under the Jones Act, you will be covered under the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act.

How the Jones Act Protects Employees at Sea

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, then the employer may be held liable and sued by the injured party. Examples of unsafe conditions or situations that may trigger liability include:

  • Insufficient training of captain or crew
  • Poorly maintained equipment
  • Oil or other slippery substances on the ship's deck
  • Assault by a fellow crew member
  • Failure to provide crew with the proper equipment

For instance, suppose a crew member fails to place a "caution" sign in front of a section of the deck that was just mopped and thus slippery. If another crew member slips and suffers a torn ligament as a result of the deck conditions, the injured party may decide to sue his or her employer for the injury.

How to File a Claim Under the Jones Act

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, however minor. So if the crew member who slipped on the deck was also negligent, he or she still could file a claim if the slippery conditions were just one cause of the injury.

Generally, 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 useful for your claim)
  4. Settle claim or file a lawsuit against your employer

Talk to an Attorney Before Filing a Jones Act Claim

While state and federal laws can be confusing for non-lawyers, maritime law is a whole different beast. And since so many different factors may have contributed to your injury at sea, it's not always clear which party (if any) was negligent. If you've been injured while working on a sea vessel, an experienced attorney can help you get the compensation you deserve.

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