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What is a Jones Act Vessel and Why Does it Matter?

The Jones Act was passed in 1920 to boost the U.S. economy by restricting port access to American shipyards to only domestically made ships. It also provided financial relief to sailors and crew injured on vessels that operate on navigable waters. The language of the Act is not very clear about what counts as a vessel in order to involve its application and protections, so the definition of a Jones Act vessel has emerged out of hundreds of federal cases that have been considered over the last century.

Are you wondering whether the Jones Act applies to you? If you are a maritime worker who has suffered an injury while working on a ship or other vessel, you need to understand whether you qualify for benefits under the Jones Act. Call a Houston Jones Act attorney from The Krist Law Firm, P.C. for a free consultation regarding your case today.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 – AKA the Jones Act

Sponsored by Washington Senator Wesley Jones, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 is commonly called the Jones Act. This federal law regulates transport in U.S. coastal waters and among domestic ports. It also governs various aspects of the maritime industry.

The goal was to protect ports and shipyards from unknown substances and practices by foreign-flagged vessels operating in domestic waterways. Ships must be built in the United States, staffed with U.S. crews, and sailing under the American flag. In essence, foreign-flagged ships may enter U.S. ports from their non-U.S. destination but may not proceed to any other U.S. port. Their cargo must be offloaded and reloaded onto a U.S. vessel for onward transport.

As it pertains to personal injury claims, the Jones Act extends the protections of the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA) to seamen. In Title 46 U.S.C. § 30104, the Jones Act allows seafaring employees on vessels to bring civil lawsuits against their employers in the event of injury. In the event of death, their personal representatives may bring wrongful death actions under the Death on the High Seas Act. Maritime injury and death cases are eligible for a jury trial court.

Most Ships and Boats Are Potentially Jones Act Vessels

The Jones Act applies to maritime environments that constitute a vessel under the law. This means any watercraft or other artificial conveyance that can be used for transport over water. A general overview of the Jones Act shows that any of the following vessels or floating structures qualify under the Act so long as they operate in navigable waters:

  • Barges
  • Cargo ships
  • Commercial fishing boats
  • Cruise liners
  • Drilling ships
  • Ferries
  • Freighters
  • Oil platform supply and service vessels
  • Tug boats

A Jones Act vessel must meet three main qualifications:

The Vessel Must Be Owned by an American or American-Based Company

To file a claim under the Jones Act for personal injury compensation, your vessel must be owned by a U.S. citizen or U.S. based company. Your vessel may operate in international waters, but ownership is the crucial factor. Recall that the Jones Act was passed to offer economic protection for the domestic fleet from foreign ships moving freight and passengers among U.S. coastal ports.

The Vessel Must Operate in Navigable Waters

Every country has a specified distance from its coastline that is considered its territory. The United States is no different, and the Jones Act considers this area to be part of our navigable waters. The Act also includes all rivers and lakes that are accessible from coastal ports. Therefore, no foreign-flagged ships may operate in these waters.

A vessel spending at least 30% of its time in U.S. waters is considered to be under the jurisdiction of the Jones Act. This allows workers on that ship to be eligible for compensation for injuries that occur on the job.

The Vessel Must Transport People or Cargo

Specifically, a Jones Act vessel must have the purpose of transporting goods or passengers between U.S. points or ports. This includes cruise ships, although passengers may not disembark at one port and reembark from a different port except under extreme circumstances.

Additionally, while research and construction vessels operate in navigable waters, they do not qualify for protection under the Jones Act because their primary purpose is not moving people or cargo.

The Most Important Legal Factor Is Whether the Vessel Operates in Navigable Waters

Ship at a cargo vessel docking yard. Jones Act vessel.First of all, what are navigable waters? Generally speaking, navigable waters include any body of water that is (or could be) used for international or interstate commerce. Thus, the shorelines of the oceans, their ports, and connecting canals are all navigable waters. Any river or lake that connects two states or that leads to the ocean is considered to be navigable.

So, how do courts determine if a ship is operating on navigable waters? First, the courts look at whether the vessel’s purpose is for commercial or transport activities. They will examine the origin, destination, and current location of the vessel.

For instance, consider the following examples of ships that are covered by the Jones Act:

  • Docked or anchored vessels – The vessel will fall under the Jones Act as long as the vessel is ready for another voyage.
  • Vessels in dry dock – If the dry dock repairs are being undertaken to ready the vessel for another voyage, then the ship may be considered in navigation, even though it is not actively about to sail.
  • Vessels with sufficient crew – Another consideration is the proportion of crew on the vessel. Even if some of the crew is on vacation, as long as there are enough individuals employed to operate the ship, the Jones Act may still apply.

As you can see, determining whether an injury case can be tried under the Jones Act is very complicated. Each new case has the opportunity to adjust the interpretation of this law, so it is critical to have skilled maritime lawyers working on your claim to achieve the best possible outcome. Identifying all potentially liable parties, determining whether your case falls under Jones Act jurisdiction, and successfully pursuing a claim takes an attorney with training, knowledge, and experience in this field.

Cases That Have Shaped the Interpretation of the Jones Act

Cargo ship transporting goods. Jones Act vessel.As mentioned earlier, the Jones Act has changed and evolved over the last 100 years due to the courts’ interpretations in numerous cases. In fact, according to the 1966 case of Producers Drilling Company v. Gray, just about any structure that is capable of floating on navigable waters may potentially be a vessel under the Jones Act. What matters most is not the type, shape, or size of the vessel but where and how it was being used at the time of a seaman’s alleged injury.

Another case, Buna v. Pacific Far East Line, Inc. (1977), holds that any floating structure whose purpose is reasonably related to the transportation of cargo, equipment, or passengers could be a vessel. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Stewart v. Dutra Construction Company that a very large floating dredge counted as a vessel under the Jones Act.

The dredge, named the Super Scoop, was found to meet the requirement of transporting workers and cargo, although it was not self-powered. It required towing by another vessel but was ruled as having the capability to perform as a vessel in navigable waters. This opened the door to allow employees on dredges and offshore drilling platforms to seek financial relief for personal injury claims under the Jones Act.

Potential Compensation in a Jones Act Personal Injury Claim

Working on maritime vessels is extremely dangerous, requiring both training and concentration. A single mistake can put coworkers at high risk for catastrophic injury. When an employer fails to maintain a safe workplace, employees have the right to seek compensation for numerous expenses.

Personal injury claims under the Jones Act allow you to seek financial relief for your economic damages, which have a fixed cost, and non-economic damages, which are subjective. Some examples of economic damages include:

  • All doctor visits
  • Emergency transport, such as a helicopter flight to a nearby hospital
  • ICU, ER, and surgery costs
  • In-home nursing care or nursing facility expenses
  • Lost future earning capacity if you are disabled
  • Lost wages while you cannot work
  • Medication expenses
  • Therapy and rehabilitation costs

Non-economic losses can also be repaid since the emotional, psychological, and mental injury you suffer may permanently affect your ability to return to work. Your personal injury attorney can help you calculate the value of your pain and suffering and demonstrate this need to the court. Examples of non-economic damages are:

  • Anxiety, depression, and PTSD
  • Emotional distress
  • Loss of a limb or amputation
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Mental anguish
  • Permanent disability

The Krist Law Firm, P.C. Can Help

If you’ve been injured on a ship or other floating structure, the Jones Act may or may not apply to your case. If you have any doubts about the applicability of the Jones Act to your situation, you should contact the award-winning maritime accident lawyers of The Krist Law Firm, P.C.

With a proven track record of getting compensation for injured sailors and seamen, we can explain the law to you and guide your case to a successful resolution. Do not delay and do not try to go it alone in your personal injury case. Rely on the skill and experience our offshore injury lawyers offer to all our clients.

We offer a “No Recovery, No Fee” policy, meaning that if we do not secure a settlement or jury award for you, you do not pay any legal fees. Contact us today to schedule a free, no-risk, no-obligation consultation with a qualified personal injury lawyer at The Krist Law Firm, P.C.