Who Is Considered a Seaman?

The status of a seaman is defined under admiralty law. Such a legal provision is required to give maritime workers an array of protections that include the payment of wages, remedies for workplace injuries and specific workplace conditions.

One of the most important legal provisions that define the rights and the responsibilities of a seaman is the Jones Act.

What is the Jones Act?

The Act is a bill that regulates the maritime commerce between US cities. It is a part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (Section 27), and it determines which ships can lawfully engage in trade. The rules under which these ships must operate are also outlined in the official act.

Under this bill, there are also strict provisions concerning the individuals that qualify as seamen.

The definition of a seaman is an individual that spends a significant amount of time working as a crew member on a vessel that is considered in navigation. A vessel in navigation is a term that refers to a ship that is in operation, afloat, currently located in navigable waters and capable of moving.

A vessel doesn’t necessarily have to be moving in navigable waters at the time being for a crew member to be defined as a seaman. A ship should simply be capable of doing so for the legal definition to apply.

There are two additional requirements for individuals to qualify as seamen under the bill. They should contribute to the work of the vessel. This is a rather broad requirement, and it’s been left open to interpretation. In essence, the work of a seaman should contribute to the successful accomplishment of the vessel’s mission.

A final requirement is for the individual to spend a significant amount of time on the vessel. Once again, the requirement is broad and tricky. It’s been generally accepted that for an individual to qualify as a seaman, they should spend at least 30 percent being on a vessel as a part of their employment.

Seaman Exclusions under the Jones Act

Since the definition of a navigable vessel is highly specific, there are certain professionals who will not qualify as seamen.

Individuals working on an oil drilling platform in the middle of the sea, for example, will not qualify as seamen. There’s a simple reason for the exclusion – the platform is not afloat but rather permanently anchored to a specific position. As such, it does not satisfy the vessel in navigation requirement.

Floating casino barges that are quite common in some states will also be excluded from the legal provisions in the Act. These vessels are usually afloat, but they’re not required to move or sail around. Because of this specific, people who work on such entertainment and gambling vessels aren’t considered seamen.

Newly built ships undergoing sea trials before starting regular courses are also not considered vessels in navigation.

The Rights and Obligations of Seamen

Now that the definition has been clarified let’s examine the provisions pertaining to such professionals.

The statute provides a cause of action in the case of a seaman becoming injured over the course of their work. While a very precise definition of a seaman isn’t provided, the act does outline remedies for such professionals.

Ever since the passing of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, courts have been attempting to interpret the definition in their way because there seem to be some ambiguities pertaining to the bill.

The thing that the act has done is narrow down the scope of the term, but there are still cases in which interpretation may be required. Prior to the passing of the Act, the term seaman referred to a wide array of professionals. Among the individuals covered under the legal definition were included fishermen, harpooners, divers, doctors, engineers, firemen, cabin boys, chambermaids, carpenters, bartenders and other professionals working on a vessel.

Cases like Swanson v. Marra Borther show that definitions are open to interpretation. In the case, Jones Act was interpreted as providing relief the master or the crew members of any vessel (in that specific situation, a longshoreman loading cargo on a ship was struck by a life raft and injured – he wasn’t considered a seaman under the statute).

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