If you’re a seaman and got injured on the job as a result of negligence by the fleet or vessel’s owner, officers, employers, or because of a fellow crew member, you can file a legal claim against your employer under the Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. You have the burden of proving your case by demonstrating evidence — and the claims process is time-sensitive — so you need to be quick and methodical if you want to get the compensation you need for what happened to you.

But how do you know if you qualify as a seaman in the first place? Though that answer may be clear for most captains and crew members, it may be more complex for others who spend more of their time on shore or whose job doesn’t necessarily contribute to the accomplishment of their vessel’s mission.

Do I Qualify as a Seaman?

A seaman is a captain or crew member who spends a significant amount of their time on a vessel, or fleet of vessels, in navigation. To check if you qualify as a seaman, let’s break down these two requirements into more understandable criteria that you can assess.

1. At Least 30% of Employment Time Spent on Vessel

To avoid opening up Jones Act lawsuits to land-based workers who occasionally work aboard vessels, the U.S. Supreme Court has developed the substantial connection criteria for seamen: “A seaman must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature,” the court states in the case Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis (1995)1.

In plain English this means that, to qualify for seaman status in case of personal injury on the job, at least 30% of your total employment time should have been spent on a vessel, or a fleet of vessels, in navigation. The vessel doesn’t necessary need to be moving at the time of your injury: as long as it meets the requirement that it is “capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water,” it might as well be tied up at a dock.

Say that a licensed seaman works in his/her company’s office managing its fleet of ferries. Once an year, he/she takes a one- or two-week trip on one of these ferries. Clearly, that person does not qualify as a seaman. However, if that person spends 70% of their time working in the office, 20% of their time on Ferry 1, and 10% of their remaining time on Ferry 2, where both ferries are owned by his employer, then that person most certainly qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act.

2. The Vessel Is in Navigation

In Section #1, we made it clear that to qualify for seaman status under the Jones Act, you need to have been working aboard a fleet of navigable vessels or a single vessel in navigation for at least 30% of your total employment time. But how do you assess if a vessel is “in navigation” or not?

Lets break the term “navigable vessel” down into a clearer set of criteria that you can measure your employment context against.

A vessel “in navigation” typically is:

  • Afloat
  • In operation
  • Capable of moving on its own power (or of being sailed)
  • In navigable waters

It’s important to note that, to qualify as navigable, the vessel doesn’t necessarily need to be moving or at sea. It does need, however, to be at water and capable of moving by itself.

“Navigable waters” refers to waters, say a river or lake, that can be used for interstate or foreign commerce. The ocean and all waters connected directly into it are navigable waters. Over time, the term “navigable waterways” has been interpreted by federal courts to include almost any body of water. Of course, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are considered navigable waterways, but so are harbors, rivers, and inland lakes.

3. Contribution to the Function of the Vessel

In the case McDermott International, Inc. v. Wilander (1991), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the legal claim that only workers involved in navigating a vessel qualified as seamen. In case of personal injury on the job, this practically means that most anyone working on a ship can file a claim against his/her employer under the Jones Act, as long as he/she has spent more than 30% of their employment time onboard and the vessel is in navigation.

Before McDermott International v. Wilander (1991)2, U.S. courts often followed one of two tests to asses if a maritime worker was a seaman or not. There was the Robinson test to see if a seaman “contributed to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission,” and the Johnson test to check if the employee made a “significant contribution to the maintenance, operation, or welfare of the transportation function of the vessel.”

In the Wilander case, Justice O’Conner determined that, at the time the Jones Act was passed, “it was only necessary that a person be employed on board a vessel in furtherance of its purpose.” With this precedent, a maritime worker can be considered a seamen, no matter if he/she has a direct contribution to the function or the transportation of the vessel.

Below is an example of a (non-exhaustive) list of positions which, provided that more than 30% of total employment time is spent onboard a navigable vessel, are most probably entitled to compensation under the Jones Act in case of on-the-job personal injury:

  • Captains
  • 1st Officers, 2nd Officers, 3rd Officers (Bosuns)
  • Boatswains, Able Seamen, Ordinary Seamen
  • Chief Engineers, 2nd Engineers, N-th Engineers
  • Motormen, Oilers, Wipers
  • Electro-technical Officers, Electro-technical Mechanics
  • Cleaners
  • Construction crews
  • Maintenance crews for offshore rigs
  • Barbers, Maids, Clerks, Musicians, Bartenders

I Got Injured on the Job. What Do I Do Next?

If you were injured while working onboard a vessel, no matter if the vessel was moving or tied up at the dock, you may be able to bring a legal claim for damages under the Jones Act, or other federal maritime law.

Do not accept any settlement offers from your employer or insurance company before you consult with your maritime personal injury lawyer. You are unlikely to receive a fair compensation in the initial offer, especially if you can’t assess the true value of your claim.

To get started, contact a maritime attorney.

Footnotes

  1. Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis (1995): Antonios Latsis was employed by Chandris, Inc. as a salaried superintendent engineer. He was responsible for maintaining and updating the electronic and communications equipment on Chandris’ fleet of vessels, which consisted of six passenger cruise ships. He lost substantial vision in one eye after a condition that he developed while, on one of those voyages, it went untreated by the ship’s physician. He sued Chandris for damages for his eye under the Jones Act, which provides negligence for “any seaman” injured “in the course of his employment.”

    At trial, Chandris claimed that he had spent 72% of his working time at sea, whereas his immediate supervisor testified that the appropriate figure was closer to 10%. The district court decided this case on the premises that a person is considered a seaman if he/she is permanently aboard or contributes to the mission of the ship. The Second Curcuit Court vacated this judgement on the issue of the definition of a seaman. The plaintiff eventually brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it received certiorari.

  2. McDermott International v. Wilander (1991): The plaintiff, Jon Wilander, was employed by McDermott International, Inc. as a paint foreman supervising the sand-blasting and painting of fixed drilling platforms in the Persian Gulf. Though he was assigned to the M/V Gates Tide, a paint boat chartered to McDermott, at the time of his accident Wilander was not on the paint boat, but inspecting a pipe on a fixed drilling platform. When the accident happened, a plug on a pressurized pipe exploded and struck Wilander in the head. Ultimately, the jury rendered a net award of $337,500.

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