Maritime Workers are Not Entitled to Workers’ Compensation Benefits – Jones Act to the Rescue

Seamen, just like all other workers, are entitled to compensation when they are injured in the line of duty regardless of any claims of negligence. Many seamen think they should file for workers’ compensation after getting injured on the job. After all, it’s what all other workers do, isn’t it? The truth is, maritime worker injuries are covered by a completely different set of laws from workers’ compensation laws and these laws are actually more worker-friendly.

Why Not Workers’ Compensation for Injured Seamen?

First of all, workers’ compensation laws apply to workers injured on US land. Their jurisdiction does not extend to the sea or open waters. A seaman injured in open waters cannot file a worker’s compensation claim.

This does not mean that you are not protected if you are injured while working on a maritime vessel. It only means that a different set of laws apply. One of them is the Jones Act.

Jones Act – Who is a Seaman and What is a Seaman Entitled to?

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act, lays out the legal rights of seamen injured while on a vessel operating in commercially navigable waters.

According to the act, a seaman is a man or woman who spends more than 30 percent of their time working on a qualified vessel. It includes the captain, officers, crewmembers, operators and just about anyone else contributing to the operation of a vessel.

A vessel is any kind of ship or boat, large or small, operating in commercially navigable waters. “In navigation” does not necessarily mean in the open waters. A vessel can be in navigation as long as it is afloat, in operation or capable of moving. A ship that has been tied to a dock can still be considered “in navigation.”

The act requires employers to provide seamen with reasonably safe working conditions and to ensure the vessels used by seamen are in safe working condition. These requirements are applied strictly. So much so that even the smallest injury arising as a result of negligence by the employer can warrant a claim under the act.

The Jones Act Versus Workers’ Compensation

Aside from the fact that the Merchant Marine Act applies to seamen and the other to workers injured on land, how else are the two sets of laws different?

First, under workers’ compensation laws, an injured employee does not have to prove negligence by the employer. All the employee has to do when injured on the job is to file a claim for workers’ compensation and prove that the injury occurred in the course of employment. It is irrelevant that an employer’s or coworker’s negligence led to the injury. Basically, the employee waives the right to sue in exchange for prompt compensation.

On the other hand, a claim can only be filed under the act if an employer or co-worker was negligent. Luckily, the standard of proof here is very low. An injured seaman need only prove that the employer was partly to blame, even if by only 1 percent, and that the negligence caused the injury. Even if the seaman was also negligent, as long as the employer shared a part of the blame, a claim under the act can succeed.

Secondly, more remedies are recoverable under the act than workers’ compensation. While injured employees in qualified workers’ compensation claims only receive medical expenses and lost wages, in Jones Act claims they can file suit against the negligent employer and recover damages for past and future medical expenses, lost wages, lost earning capacity and pain and suffering.

It is important at this point to distinguish between an act negligence claim and a claim for maintenance and cure benefits. While a negligence claim is required to prove some level of negligence, in order to receive maintenance and cure benefits, a seaman is not required to show negligence. If you are injured will in service of your vessel, you are entitled to receive maintenance and cure benefits, which are very similar in nature to workers’ compensation benefits.

The Take-Away

The Jones Act provides you as a maritime worker with an expanded set of benefits not available to land-workers. While you are able to obtain workers’ compensation-like benefits under the maintenance and cure provisions of the act, you are also entitled to file a separate claim against your employer for negligence, if such negligence is present. This is a right not afforded to land-workers in the U.S.

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