Navigating the Legal Requirements for Seamen

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, often called the Jones Act, was instituted to provide a framework within which seamen could claim financial compensation from their employers for injuries that were sustained directly as a result of the negligence of the ship’s captain, its owners or other crew members. These added protections were intended to provide a safer and more seaworthy working environment for sailors who otherwise had little or no recourse against unsafe vessels and incompetent owners and ship captains. Jones Act attorneys specialize in providing support for seamen in pursuing compensation for their claims. To receive these protections, however, sailors must first demonstrate that they meet the criteria necessary to qualify as seamen under the provisions of the Jones Act. What Defines a Seaman? Although all seamen are sailors, not all sailors can be called seamen under the Jones Act. Seamen must meet the following requirements:

  • They must serve on a vessel that is currently afloat, in operating condition, capable of moving from its current spot and located in navigable waters. Note that the vessel does not have to be currently in motion; it must simply be capable of moving if the need arose. Navigable waters may be interpreted to mean open waters or may specifically require a channel or available avenue that leads to the sea or other large body of water.
  • The seaman must perform useful work aboard the vessel.
  • At least 30 percent of the seaman’s time must be spent aboard a qualifying vessel or vessels in the performance of useful duties.

Each of these criteria can be interpreted differently. Maritime law firms specialize in representing injury cases and providing help for sailors in determining whether or not they might be eligible for compensation for losses and injuries incurred in the course of their regular duties. No Clear Consensus A recent case that is currently being considered for deliberation by the U.S. Supreme Court highlights the difficulties inherent in determining whether a particular worker qualifies as a seaman under Jones Act law. William Smith Dize was a boat captain in the Chesapeake Bay area. While he did not spend 30 percent of his time on board his vessel, Dize spent most of his remaining work hours at work maintaining the boat and performing tasks on the docks. In 2008, Dize was diagnosed with silicosis, a respiratory illness that results from breathing in silica dust. It is believed that Dize contracted this condition while sandblasting the exterior surface of a boat during his regular duties. Dize sued his employer for compensation prior to his death in 2012; however, his claim was denied because he was not deemed to be a seaman under the provisions of the Jones Act. If the Supreme Court decides to take up the case, Dize’s widow could potentially collect compensation on behalf of her husband. The case could also set a legal precedent for providing compensation to workers who spend less than 30 percent of their time actually on board their ship but who perform tasks integral to the proper function and operation of these vessels. Ship workers who have been injured during the course of their duties should consult with a knowledgeable attorney to determine the right course of action in their particular case. Although injured oil rig and refinery workers are usually not eligible for compensation under the Jones Act, they can often benefit by consulting a qualified offshore injury lawyer to pursue their claims and to achieve a fair settlement. These professionals have the experience and expertise necessary to navigate the legal complexities of these cases and to ensure that injured workers receive the compensation to which they are legally entitled.