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The Jones Act Explained: Understanding Maritime Workers’ Rights and Compensation

By: Henri M. Saunders

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 was enacted to support and develop the maritime industry and to ensure that it remained under American Control. Among its many provisions, Section 27 of the Act, commonly known as the Jones Act, extends federal employer liability to seamen and provides maritime workers with an avenue to be compensated for injuries incurred while working on a vessel. 

To help employees understand the Jones Act and determine whether it’s applicable, here’s a brief overview of key provisions of the Act, who it applies to, and how it’s currently being applied in federal courts. 

Injury-Related Benefits Under the Jones Act 

Maritime workers who spend a significant amount of their work duties on a vessel are generally not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits under state or federal laws. To help address this gap for maritime workers injured on the job, the Jones Act provides a mechanism for qualified maritime workers to file a claim against their employer for compensation for their injuries. 

There are two types of claims allowed under the Jones Act: 

  1. Maintenance and Care Claims: These claims cover daily and medical expenses incurred from a work-related injury. Most maritime workers are entitled to this compensation regardless of the cause of their work-related injury. 
  1. Negligence Claims: These claims encompass a broader range of expenses and damages resulting from work-related accidents. To be eligible for these damages, the employee must establish that the employer was negligent or at least in part responsible for the injury. 

To be considered a qualified maritime worker under the Act, an employee must perform a significant amount of their work on a vessel of any kind. The protections apply to anyone from a crew member to a captain but generally do not extend to longshore workers or shipyard employees. 

Understanding Negligence Claims Under the Jones Act

Maritime employers must provide workers with a reasonably safe place to work and must exercise proper care to maintain the vessel to keep it in a reasonably safe condition. 

To succeed in a negligence claim a maritime worker must show that an owner, captain, or crew member was negligent and that this negligence caused the worker’s injury.

The Jones Act is advantageous to employees as it places the burden on employers to keep vessels safe. Additionally, there is a lower burden of proof for Jones Act negligence claims than there is for standard negligence cases. 

Damages awarded in negligence cases can cover a myriad of expenses and losses including past and future wages, past and future medical expenses, and pain and suffering. 

Application of the Jones Act in District Courts 

To illustrate the application of the Jones Act, we can examine a recent case handled by this firm in the Eastern District of Louisiana. This case shows how this employee-friendly law is being applied by federal courts. In Kelvin Dunn v. Marquette Transportation Company (EDLA, Case No. 16-CV-13545), Dunn, a captain of a Marquette vessel, brought suit against his employer for compensation as a result of injuries incurred while he dealing with a diesel leak in the engine room of a negligently maintained Marquette vessel. Rather than taking responsibility for its unseaworthy vessel, the defendant boat company attempted to place blame on Mr. Dunn suggesting he should not have gone down into the engine room to attempt to stop the diesel leak. Rather, they suggested he should have pushed the emergency engine shut-off button outside of the engine room. But as we pointed out at trial, this would have left the vessel, with two (2) loaded chemical barges in tow, without power or steering. 

The district judge in New Orleans found Marquette solely responsible for Dunn’s injuries and awarded damages of $3.4 million. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision on appeal, and the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case. As a result, the verdict stands and the judgment was paid. 

The case serves as a good example of how aggressive and professional representation can result in a substantial damage award when employers are negligent or fail to properly maintain their vessels. 

Seek Professional Assistance for Jones Act Claims

If you’re unsure whether you’re a qualified maritime employee under the Act or have suffered work-related injuries, consider reaching out to Saunders & Chabert for guidance on your potential claims. 

Remember, seeking professional legal advice is crucial when dealing with Jones Act claims to ensure you receive the compensation you are entitled to. Our experienced team of personal injury lawyers can help you navigate applicable laws and get the compensation you deserve. Schedule a free consultation or call us at (225)771-8100 to learn more. 

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