The Jones Act Explained

The Jones Act is a portion of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 that addresses the rights of seamen and coastal commerce in the United States. Many consider the Act to be one of the most essential pieces of domestic marine law. The statute, named for its sponsor, Senator Wesley Jones, superseded several obsolete laws based on England’s unique Navigation Acts. 

The goal, as written in the Act’s foreword, is to “promote and foster” a standard and thriving US marine sector while also addressing national security problems. The Act, on the other hand, is close to the hearts of — and possibly most valued by — the many seafarers in the United States, since it finally established the preexisting rights in harmony for years. 

Before the Jones Act, it was difficult for sailors to collect reimbursement from a reluctant employer for injuries inflicted at sea. For years, it was commonly accepted that if a marine worker was hurt on the job, it was his employer’s obligation to give free medical care and later financial aid while the sailor recovered. However, this did not always happen — and when it did, it was often accompanied by pathetically inadequate aid from the employer. With no legal recourse to seek adequate treatment and damages, mariners were at the discretion of their superiors, not all of whom would be fair or moral. The Jones Act, thankfully, altered all of that. 

The provisions of the Act were substantially derived from the federal government’s FELA act. FELA is a United States federal statute that was created in the early twentieth century to protect and pay injured railway employees. Because railroaders confront more risk than the usual worker, the FELA allowed them the right to sue if they were injured on the job. Because it is based on this earlier legislation, the Jones Act has identical safeguards and a similar burden of evidence.

Unlike state-level Workers’ Compensation regulations, compensation under the Jones Act is not automatic upon an injury. Compliance with worker’s comp, as it is informally called, results in the immediate loss of the privilege to take one’s employer to court. To effectively claim compensation under the Act, the injured marine employee must demonstrate that the defendant was negligent in some way. It is crucial to highlight that the employer does not have to be held exclusively accountable for the damage or death.

While negligence in this context includes the anticipated areas like failure to maintain a ship and its equipment and insufficient training, it also includes some unexpected scenarios. These include an inadequate selection of other crewmen, excessive overtime, and even permitting drunken sailors onboard the vessel regularly. In such cases, a crew member can sue for injury even if they were incpacitated the time. 

Injuries do not have to occur during work shifts. They might occur when the sailor is living aboard, boarding, or disembarking the vessel. A claim of ‘unseaworthiness,’ which is not protected by international maritime law, may also be filed under the Jones Act.

For further information on your rights under the Jones Act, please consult a competent maritime law agency.