The Jones Act Under Attack
With the Jones Act again coming under scrutiny, it is timely to remember that those most directly affected by the act are seafarers.
Over the years, lawmakers and presidents have proposed making somewhat controversial changes to the Jones Act. Some have gone so far as to recommend repealing it entirely as Senator John McCain did in 2015. He described the law as archaic and claimed that it restricts economic growth and drives up prices for consumers by limiting the extent to which foreign-flagged ships can move goods through the U.S.
The Jones Act has been in the news again recently as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has made a move to revise or reverse more than 30 interpretive rulings of the law that date back to 1976. These mostly relate to offshore operations through the extension of the Jones Act called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The changes could have far-reaching consequences, and many, including the Trump administration, are concerned they will limit offshore growth and tonnage. The administration has put a temporary freeze on any changes to the rulings so that they can be reviewed.
The Definition of a Seafarer
The Jones Act, passed in 1920, protects legally-defined maritime workers and helps maintain a safe and efficient maritime industry by holding employers accountable for worker injuries and fatalities.
The definition of who qualifies as a seafarer came about through the court system. Not all maritime workers qualify, and there are other laws that are set aside to protect many of these other workers, such as the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. By the definition of the law, a seafarer is someone who spends a significant proportion of working time on a vessel in navigation and contributing to the operation of the vessel.
Parts of the definition have been further clarified to state that a significant proportion of time working on a vessel means 30 percent of working hours. This time can be spent on one vessel or be split between a fleet of vessels.
The “in navigation” part of the definition has also been clarified by the courts. The vessel on which the seafarer works must be afloat, in operation, capable of moving and on navigable waters. The definition of a seafarer by law disqualifies workers on offshore oil platforms and those who spend most of their time working in a port or shipyard, not on ships in the water.
A Seafarer’s Right to Compensation
For those many workers who match the definition of a seafarer, the Jones Act provides a legal way to seek compensation from an employer who is found negligible in a seafarer’s injury, illness or death. The burden of proof is relatively low for the seafarer. He or she only needs to show that the employer was at least partly negligible in causing an incident that led to the injury.
The law is based on the fact that workers have a right to expect a relatively safe work environment and that employers are obligated to take all reasonable measures to make that environment safe. A shipowner or captain could be negligent in a number of ways:
• Not providing workers with adequate training to do their jobs safely
• Allowing the maintenance of a ship or equipment to deteriorate
• Failing to provide enough safety equipment for all workers
• Failing to maintain a safe deck, free of debris or slick spots
• Allowing a vessel to go out in waters or weather in spite of signs that it will be too dangerous.
Damages Under the Jones Act
An injured seafarer has a right to seek damages from an employer. Damages include several types of compensation and are similar to those allowed in personal injury cases. A seafarer may seek recovery of lost wages or even future diminished earning capacity if he or she is not able to do the same job after being injured. Damages may also include all current and future medical expenses related to the injury, compensation for pain and suffering and compensation for mental anguish or emotional suffering. The dependent family members of a seafarer who has died on the job also have this right to seek damages when negligence has played a role.
In Peace and War
The Jones Act has played an important role in protecting maritime workers and in pushing for safe working environments for them. It has also played a big role in helping to maintain a vital, safe and efficient maritime industry for both peace and war time in the U.S.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.