Maritime workers who qualify as "seamen" are afforded special rights and remedies under federal law, including the right to compensation for on-the-job injuries and illnesses, under federal legislation known as the Jones Act.
Seamen are entitled to protections like these because maritime courts view them as "wards" of admiralty (a longstanding area of law that deals with transportation, commerce and other activities on and related to the water). Protective measures like the Jones Act stem from the extremely dangerous work seamen do (they are at the mercy of "the perils of the sea," to borrow a time-honored phrase). So, let's take a closer look at Jones Act claims and other remedies available to an injured seaman.
(Note: The Jones Act and Longshore and Harborworkers’ Compensation Act (Longshore Act) provide mutually exclusive remedies. Seamen recover under the Jones Act, and onshore maritime workers recover under the Longshore Act.)
Who Is Covered Under the Jones Act?
An injured worker must prove seaman status to be eligible for recovery under the Jones Act. To be considered a seaman, an employee must:
- contribute to the function of a vessel or to the accomplishment of the vessel's mission, and
- have a substantial connection to a vessel in navigation.
As long as the worker’s job contributes to the vessel’s mission, the worker has an employment-related connection to the vessel, and the relative importance of the job function to navigation is not crucial in determining whether the worker is a seaman.
For example, a bartender on a floating casino could be covered under the Jones Act if the floating casino is considered a “vessel”. And in some cases, workers on oil production vessels are considered seamen for Jones Act purposes. To have a substantial connection to a vessel, the worker must be regularly exposed to the perils of the sea. Courts have gauged this to mean the worker should spend about 30% of working time on the vessel.
Seamen Can Sue an Employer For Negligence
Unlike the Longshore and Harborworkers’ Compensation Act, the Jones Act gives seamen a right to sue their employer for negligence. To prove a negligence claim, the seaman must show the employer breached a duty of reasonable care owed to the employee, and that the breach caused the seaman’s injury. The negligence of a coworker can also allow a seaman to recover compensation from the employer, under a vicarious liability theory.
The benefit of raising a negligence claim is that the seaman can recover different types of damages, in contrast to the limited recovery one might receive otherwise (in a workers' compensation claim, for example). The kinds of damages available in a negligence action include:
- medical expenses
- lost wages
- lost earning capacity
- pain and suffering, and
- punitive damages (meant to punish an employer's outrageous or reckless conduct, and set a deterrent example for others).
Especially given the availability of "pain and suffering" damages, an injured seaman can often recover more money in a negligence action, compared with an ordinary employee (limited to a workers' comp claim). This explains why in many cases establishing seaman status can get contentious between the worker and employer.
Seamen Can Sue the Vessel Operator For "Unseaworthiness"
Sometimes the vessel on which a seaman works is operated by an entity other than the employer. The operator (usually the owner) has a duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. "Seaworthiness" requires the owner to ensure that the vessel is reasonably fit for its intended use. In other words, it must be well-maintained, have proper equipment, and be operated by a competent crew. If the operator does not meet any of these obligations, it can be liable for damages.
Injured Seamen Will At Least Receive "Maintenance and Cure"
Maintenance and cure is similar to workers’ compensation, in that it only requires the seaman to prove the injury or illness is related to employment on the vessel. These benefits can be recovered from the employer in addition to any recovery for negligence or unseaworthiness, although double-recovery for medical expenses is not allowed. These benefits include:
- wages through the end of the voyage
- living expenses ("maintenance"), and
- medical expenses ("cure").
Maintenance and cure coverage is almost guaranteed. One famous case gave maintenance and cure to a seaman who jumped from a prostitute's window while in a foreign port, to avoid a fight with the woman's male associate. How, exactly, that seaman's exploits were considered "in the service of the vessel" has been the subject of much debate, but the case shows just how far courts will go to protect seamen.