Navigating Rough Waters: Maritime Law and the Jones Act

09.05.2024 General

Maritime Worker: Seaman under the Jones Act.

            The Texas Gulf Coast is home to the Port of Houston, Port of Freeport, and Port of Galveston. Between these three ports, our Texas Gulf Coast is one of the busiest in the world, provides thousands of jobs to the local community, and creates economic prosperity. This economic activity creates many maritime jobs that work on and around oceangoing vessels. Maritime jobs come with many of the same inherent dangers and accidents, but not all maritime jobs receive the legal protections granted to “seaman” under the Jones Act. 

The Jones Act Basics

            The Jones Act is a Federal Statute that was enacted in 1920 to promote the American Maritime Industry by adopting many standards for vessels traveling in U.S. waters. Part of the Act provides that a “seaman[1]” has a legal right to recover damages from a negligent employer after a serious injury or wrongful death. Common legal damages include pain and suffering, lost wages, medical expenses, or loss of consortium. The Jones Act also allows an injured worker to receive a jury trial in a state court where the work-related accident occurred and limits the type of defenses employers may use against the negligence lawsuit. Without the seaman’s statutory rights, the injured or wrongfully killed seaman has limited legal recourse against the negligent company.    

What is a seaman under the Jones Act?

            The first thing to know is that “seaman” status applies to maritime jobs using oceans or inland waterways. The Jones Act does not actually define seaman. This created extensive litigation over the definition and courts struggled to develop a consistent, reliable analysis. In 2021, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit[2] issued an en banc opinion to make a more definitive two-part test for seaman status that states [1] the seaman must have a connection to the vessel in navigation; and [2] that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.     

    1. Connection to the vessel “in navigation.”

Duties necessary can include tasks from simply operating the vessel at sea to making necessary repairs to maintain vessel’s seaworthiness at a drydock. In navigation has a broad meaning and is understood to be in navigation if the vessel remains in readiness for another voyage. This understanding allows many maritime workers to satisfy this first part of the test.  

    1. The substantial-connection test.

The substantial-connection test contains two elements—duration and nature. The threshold for duration is 30%. Meaning an employee must spend at least 30% of his time “in the service of a vessel in navigation.” The second element is nature which is to analyze that time to determine if it satisfies the “in the service of a vessel in navigation.” To meet this standard an employee will need: seagoing activity; planning to move with the boat; operates primary apparatus on a vessel or barge; necessary vessel or equipment repairs at sea.       

Conclusion

            Knowing the basics of the seaman status under the Jones Act is important for lawyers, injured maritime workers, and families of the wrongfully killed because when a tragedy occurs businesses tend to limit the possibility of a lawsuit by claiming the injured employee is not covered under the Jones Act.  We have witnessed employers, claiming to “assist” the grieving family members, by filling out paperwork to prevent a Jones Act case with the intention to make the case a worker’s compensation case. Consult an experienced Texas maritime lawyer immediately to discuss legal options in a maritime accident so that you and your family get the best advice and stay protected.      

Contact DeKeyzer Law at (713) 904-4004 for a FREE consultation about your rights and options.

[1] “A seaman injured the course of employment or, if the seaman dies from the injury, the personal representative of the seaman may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer.  Laws of the United States regulating recovery for personal injury to, or death of, a railway employee apply to an action under this section.”  46 U.S.C. § 30104.

[2]  Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Tex., L.L.C., 19-20506, 2021 WL 1882565, at *1 (5th Cir. May 11, 2021).