Jones Act – Seaman Status

Under the Jones Act, the status of a seaman entitles a maritime worker to certain rights, particularly when injured while aboard a vessel. These include workplace injury remedies such as:

  • A claim against an employer for medical expenses and lost wages
  • Maintenance and cure benefits covering both medical and living expenses for injuries sustained at sea, regardless of fault
  • A claim under the doctrine of unseaworthiness where injury is sustained as a result of a vessel being in poor sea condition

All these remedies are only applicable to maritime workers who hold the status of a seaman.

Who Holds the Status of a Seaman?

In a claim brought under the Jones Act, you must prove that you are a qualified a seaman before recovering under the Act. While the Act does not specifically define the term, the US Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit Court have interpreted the term to give effect to the remedies available to seamen under the Act.

In Chandris, Inc. v Latsis, the Supreme Court established a test for the seaman status, determining that a maritime worker held the status of a seaman if he had an employment-related connection to a vessel in navigation and that this connection was substantial in both duration and nature.

  • Employment-related Connection

Clarifying this two-pronged approach, the court determined that an employment-related connection existed when a seaman’s work, at the time of injury, contributes to the overall purpose of a vessel. Vessel here can mean a ship, boat or any craft that navigates and operates in commercially navigable waters.

  • Connection Is Substantial in Duration and Time

After establishing a connection between a worker and a vessel, the second test focuses on determining the extent the seaman derives a livelihood from the employment connection. Is the connection so substantial in duration and nature that the worker earns a living doing maritime work onboard a vessel in navigation? Is the worker a member of the crew who has been involved in active work onboard the vessel or is the person simply an onshore maritime worker who was only onboard the vessel at the time of injury.

In Barrett V Chevron, the Fifth Circuit Court explained that substantial part of work on a vessel would only be determined by a complete examination of the employee’s employment with a particular employer. What will be examined is how much time an employee spent working on a particular vessel (or fleet of vessels owned by a single employer) as compared to how much time the employee spent working on-shore. The general rule is that a maritime worker who spends less than 30 percent of work time on a vessel in navigation does not qualify to be a seaman under the Act.

The Jones Act was established in appreciation of the dangerous risks and hazards seamen face and to provide them with remedies for injuries incurred in the course of work. It would be wrong if the same remedies were extended to persons who are not seamen and were not exposed to the dangerous hazards associated with operating a commercial water vessel.

In this light, the Supreme Court in the Chandris case ruled that the two-pronged approach was to be used in seaman status inquiries on the basis of facts. A land-based worker would not become a seaman simply because he was injured while temporarily working on a vessel and a seaman would not lose protection under the Act simply because their vessel service took them ashore.

Every case for a claim under the Jones Act is different, and an inquiry into the status of a seaman should be performed based on facts.

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