Maritime Injury Law and the Jones Act

Maritime workers face particularly high risk of on-the-job injury. Seamen working in the merchant marine live a life that is difficult for land workers to understand, and may be days away from medical care should an emergency occur. As a result, there are several special legal remedies available to help ensure that injured seamen get appropriate compensation and care following injury. If you are an injured maritime worker, a qualified lawyer can help you determine and protect your legal rights.

The Jones Act

The Jones Act permits injured seamen to seek compensation for injuries resulting from the negligence of their employers or co-workers during the course of their employment on a vessel. As any seaman knows, a ship can be a very dangerous place to work. The Jones Act reflects that reality of maritime work, and a seaman's employer may be liable for even a small breach of duty which contributes to a seaman's injury. This is true, even where a seaman performs dangerous work while aware of the high risks involved in the work.

In addition to compensation for injuries cause by negligence, an injured seaman may also make a claim against the vessel's owner on the basis that the vessel was not seaworthy. An employer may also be liable for failing to provide a seaman with adequate medical care.

Jones Act litigation seeks to recover damages for both past and future economic and non-economic losses.

Unseaworthy Vessels

The owner of a vessel owes a seaman an absolute duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. The mere fact that a vessel is not in imminent danger of sinking does not mean that it is "seaworthy". A vessel is seaworthy if it is reasonably fit for its intended use, is equipped with appropriate equipment and safety gear, has a competent crew, and is a safe place to live and work. Even where a vessel is seaworthy when it leaves shore, it can become unseaworthy on the basis of dangers which arise or are created during its voyage. A claim that a vessel is not seaworthy is often brought at the same time as a Jones Act claim.

Maintenance and Cure

When a seaman is injured on a vessel, regardless of who is at fault, the seaman has a legal right to "maintenance and cure" - benefits similar to those available through traditional workers compensation law. "Maintenance" takes the form of a daily allowance, usually about $10 to $40 per day, to cover the food and shelter the injured seaman would have received aboard the vessel had the injury not occurred. "Cure" represents the empoyer's obligation to provide an injured seaman with appropriate medical care, hospitalization, and rehabilitation services, until the injured seaman reaches maximum medical improvement. (Please note that the obligation to provide maintenance and cure ends when the seaman reaches maximum medical improvement, even if the seaman will never fully recover from his injuries, and will never be able to return to work.)

An injured seaman has an absolute right to maintenance and cure, apart from any Jones Act claim. If a seaman has a valid Jones Act claim, the seaman may be able to recover a very substantial award of damages in addition to obtaining full benefits of maintenance and cure.

Maritime workers who are not seamen may be eligible for compensation under The Longshore and Harbor Worker's Compensation Act.

Liability of Third Parties

Under certain circumstances, such as when a seaman's injury is caused by an employee of an independent contractor aboard a vessel, it may be possible to pursue a cause of action against that independent contractor in addition to the Jones Act claim. A qualified attorney will help an injured seaman identify all possible sources of recovery.

Seeking Legal Help

An experienced Jones Act attorney can assist a seaman with an injury claims, and maximize recovery of maintenance and cure. If an employer improperly denies maintenance and cure benefits, it may also be possible to an additional award of damages and attorney fees. For cases where a seaman is killed, where possible, an attorney may also seek damages under the Death on the High Seas Act.

An injured seaman or maritime worker should always seek out an experienced lawyer when attempting to settle a claim, and should always consult with a qualified attorney before settling a claim with an employer. Determining a seaman's legal rights and maximizing recovery can be complicated, and lawyers unfamiliar with this area of the law can leave their clients with inadequate settlements. Many employers will attempt to take advantage of the plight of an injured seaman, and the desperate financial situation an injury can create for an injured seaman and the seaman's family, and will offer settlements substantially lower than the amounts to which the seaman could obtain with the help of a lawyer.

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was first published on Oct 1, 2003, and was last reviewed or amended on Jan 17, 2015.