When is Your Vessel Not a Vessel for Jones Act Purposes?

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, usually referred to as the Jones Act these days, is an expansive law that regulates maritime commerce in the U.S. It was not until 2006 though, that the act was amended to formally protect the rights of seamen. The law enables you as a seaman, or your surviving family members, to sue your employer for injuries or death while you are working on a qualifying vessel.

According to federal law, the term “vessel” refers to “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means for transportation on water.” Legislators have applied this definition to the Jones Act.

“I Work On A Boat, Shouldn’t That Be Enough?”

One would think that it would be as simple as proving that you were employed to do work on a boat when you were injured, thus qualifying you as a seaman under the act. This is not the case. The act protects workers who spend more than 30 percent of their time on a vessel or a fleet of vessels, which are defined as those that are capable of movement and operate (carry products or people) in navigable waters.

Key Features of a Jones Act Vessel

Over the past nearly 100 years that the act has been in play, countless lawsuits have been brought in federal court to determine what the legislators by various terms meant by “vessels.” To qualify, a vessel must be:

  • Owned by an American citizen or corporation;
  • Built in the U.S;
  • Registered with the U.S. Coast Guard;
  • Actively involved in commercial endeavors, such as transporting people or goods, or engaged in commercial fishing; and
  • Capable of moving, whether or not it is self-propelled.

The act does specify certain vessels that are covered under its’ provisions. These vessels include:

  • Ferry vessels
  • Fish processing vessels
  • Fish tender vessels
  • Freight vessels
  • Great Lakes barges
  • Nautical school vessels
  • Oceanographic research vessels
  • Offshore supply vessels

Following the Supreme Court decision in Stewart v. Dutra, the definition of a vessel is quite expansive. So long as the vessel is capable of being used for maritime transportation, it may qualify. In the Stewart case, Stewart, a marine engineer, was employed by Dutra, a dredging company. While Stewart was repairing an engine on the scow, it collided with the dredge that was engaged in digging a trench beneath the Boston Harbor.

Steward sued Dutra for his injuries under the act. Dutra argued that a dredge was not a vessel as defined by the act because it was not operating for purposes of navigation or commerce because it was not actually in transit when Stewart was injured. The Supreme Court disagreed with Dutra, finding that Sections 1 and 3 of the Revised Statutes of 1873 solidified the meaning of vessel as one capable of being used for water transportation. Since Dutra’s dredge was carrying workers on the water who performed work and machinery to assist them in performing work, the dredge qualified as a vessel.

When a Vessel is Not a Vessel

The courts have identified certain situations in which a vessel is not actually a vessel for Jones Act purposes. These situations include:

  • When a watercraft is permanently moored or anchored to the ocean floor, as in an oil-drilling rig.
  • When a watercraft is on the hard for an extensive period of time.
  • When a watercraft is permanently affixed to the shore, as is the case with many riverboat casinos.
  • When a watercraft is not operating in navigable waters, such as a river without a shipping channel.
  • When a craft remains stationary for years, does not have a rudder or other steering mechanism or means for self-propulsion and is connected to shore via gangways, like a quarter barge.

If you are injured while assigned to work on a riverboat casino or a quarter barge, you may not qualify for Jones Act benefits, and your claim may fall under the less advantageous provisions of the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act.

While a vessel does not necessarily have to be moving when you are injured, it must be capable of moving people and goods over water and not be permanently affixed to the ground.

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