Understanding What It Means to be a Qualified Jones Act Seaman

Seamen, just like all other workers, have the right to seek compensation when they are injured in the course of employment. The Jones Act was enacted in 1920 to codify into law, the rights of injured seamen.

Under the Act, a qualifying seaman injured at work as a result of the negligence of an employer or co-worker can file a personal injury claim for compensation against the employer. But who is a qualifying seaman?

A Qualifying Seaman under the Jones Act

A seaman is a person who spends significant time working as a crew member or captain of a vessel in navigation. To qualify as a seaman, you must be a person who:

  • spends a significant amount of time
  • contributing to the mission of
  • a vessel operating in commercially navigable waters

Significant Amount of Time

You are probably asking yourself how much time constitutes “significant time.” Well, the Act does not specifically identify just how much time is significant. However, the courts, in litigating maritime injury cases, have held 30 percent to be a significant time.

This means that if you spend at least 30 percent of your working hours working on a vessel, you meet the significant time qualification.

Here’s an example, say you worked 25 days a month for your entire maritime career, of which five days were spent aboard a vessel and the other 20 days working onshore. As a percentage, you only spent 20 percent of your work time on a vessel. That is lower than 30 percent, so it does not qualify as significant time. On the other hand, if you worked 10 days on the vessel and 15 onshore, you spent 40 percent of your work time on the vessel. That’s higher than the 30 percent threshold, so you qualify.

Interestingly, you need not spend the entire 30 percent of work time on one specific vessel. The courts have held that persons who spend more than 30 percent of their work time working aboard two or more vessels that are part of the same fleet owned by a single employer, also meet the significant time threshold. Therefore, if you spent 30 percent of your time working on either of two ships owned by the same employer, you qualify.

Contributing to the Mission

A seaman must spend significant time working on a vessel. This means that the seaman should be contributing to the operation, maintenance or functioning of the overall vessel.

To qualify as a seaman, your work must contribute to the overall purpose or mission of the vessel.

The courts have generally held that the work of crew members, deck hands, engineers, and captains build to the overall mission of the vessel.

Vessel Operating in Commercially Navigable Waters

A qualifying seaman’s work should be carried out on board a vessel in navigation. First of all, a vessel includes any ship, boat or vessel capable of navigating waters.

“In navigation” has a broader definition. It includes a ship or boat that is afloat, on navigable waters and in operation or capable of moving.

A vessel must be afloat. It does not have to be moving or crisscrossing international waters to be considered in navigation. Even a ship that has docked is considered to be in navigation, as long as it is afloat. The moment a ship leaves the waters, such as when it is on a drydock, it is no longer afloat hence is not in navigation.

A vessel must be in navigable waters. Navigable waters do not only include the seas and oceans. They also include mainland rivers and lakes that are shared by two or more states or joined to a river.

A vessel must be in operation or capable of moving. By this definition, an oil drill can be afloat, but because it is anchored to the underground ocean rocks, it is incapable of moving, hence cannot be a vessel in navigation.

Any seaman injured while working on a vessel in navigation, as a result of the negligence of an employer or co-worker, can file a personal injury claim against the employer.

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