Understanding The Jones Act And Its Application To Injured Maritime Workers

The Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is a federal law that provides certain protections for employees who are injured while working aboard U.S. vessels.

Among other things, the Jones Act provides an injured worker the right to sue an employer for negligence. Jones Act damages can include past and future lost wages, pain and suffering, and medical bills, among other damages. There are additional remedies available to the injured worker for unseaworthiness of the vessel, and maintenance (living expenses) and cure (medical expenses). Given the importance of the Jones Act to claims for injuries at sea, it is important both for maritime employers and their workers to understand how the Jones Act works and who it protects.

A recent decision by a federal district court in Florida sheds some light on this issue. Salty Dawg Expedition, Inc. v. Borland, 2017 WL 2834775 (M.D. Fla. June 30, 2017). As explained in Salty Dawg, the Jones Act “distinguishes between a ‘land-based’ and a ‘sea-based maritime worker,’” and provides a remedy only to the latter—i.e., a “seaman.” To qualify as a seaman, generally, a worker must contribute to the work of the vessel, and must “have a connection to the vessel in navigation” that is “substantial in terms of both its duration and nature.” Typically, a worker who does not spend at least 30% of his or her time working aboard the vessel lacks a “substantial connection” to the vessel.

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Image for Representation Purpose only – Photograph by Sergio Ferrazzano

The Salty Dawg case involves two individuals who responded to an email listserv solicitation posted by the owner (and captain) of the yacht, M/V Salty Dawg, seeking crew members for a month-long trip from Tampa Bay to Cancun to New Orleans. The two individuals—who were admittedly “inexperienced boaters” seeking knowledge and experience in preparation for buying a Nordhavn yacht—agreed to perform night watches and minor line handling on board the yacht. They signed no written employment contract and received no financial compensation, agreeing to work aboard the yacht purely for lodging, “sea hours,” and experience. After performing a single night watch, one of the individuals slipped and fell on his back amid turbulent seas, suffering a fractured vertebra. The owner of the vessel sued the injured worker, seeking a declaration that it owed the injured worker no maintenance and cure. The injured worker countered seeking, among other things, damages under the Jones Act and for the unseaworthiness of the vessel and maintenance and cure.

The court determined a jury trial would be necessary to determine whether an employment relationship exists and, if so, whether the injured worker qualified as a “seaman.” M/V Salty Dawg’s owner conceded that the injured worker had contributed to the work of the vessel because he had performed a night watch. But the owner disputed that the worker had “a connection to the vessel in navigation,” because the parties intended “not to sail the Gulf of Mexico continuously for a month, but rather to spend a substantial amount of time ashore in Mexico and New Orleans.” However, the court observed that there was no evidence, such as a hotel reservation, showing that the worker would remain ashore for an extended time. The court also noted that even excluding several weeks when the vessel would remain docked or moored, the evidence showed that the worker was intended to serve exclusively aboard the vessel for at least eight days while at sea over the course of the voyage. Given the “consistent rule” that even “brief but exclusive” service aboard a vessel can be a “substantial connection,” the parties would have to present their respective evidence and arguments to a jury, to determine whether the injured worker, in this case, had a substantial connection to the vessel.

Finally, M/V Salty Dawg’s owner argued that the worker had not met the “30% requirement” because he was only on the watch for approximately five hours or 20% of the 24 hours the vessel was actually underway. But the court disagreed, explaining that “the 30% guideline measures the percentage of designated work that requires a person’s presence aboard the vessel rather than the percentage of time during which the vessel’s work occupies a person.” Thus, a mechanic who monitors a vessel’s engine for six hours and then rests for 18 hours is still a “seaman,” because all of the work he is expected to do requires him to be aboard the vessel. Likewise, here, 100% of the worker’s contemplated duty—standing watch and handling lines—required his presence aboard the vessel.

Salty Dawg demonstrates the pitfalls that both maritime employers and workers can encounter when it comes to determining who is a “seaman” for Jones Act purposes. As the decision shows, even working briefly aboard a vessel at sea for no pay can conceivably make a worker a Jones Act seaman, entitled to sue under that statute. As in the case of Salty Dawg, this is a fact-specific inquiry. While it may not be possible to avoid the prospect of litigation entirely, maritime employers and workers would do well to understand the implications of the Jones Act, before a voyage begins.

Reference: Jason P. Minkin and Jonathan A. Cipriani, BatesCarey LLP (www.batescarey.com)

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