Who Qualifies as a Seaman Under the Jones Act?

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Our Houston maritime injury lawyers are often asked by potential clients whether they are eligible under the Jones Act to receive compensation.

For thousands of people working on vessels, the Jones Act is a welcome relief in times of injury. The Jones Act allows those injured on the job to access compensation if their employer’s negligence caused their injuries.

Damages are quite generous, allowing for pain and suffering that is not available in most worker’s compensation programs. The purpose of the law is to give these added protections to workers on the seas, given the dangerous nature of the work. Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 354 (1995); see also McDermott Int’l, Inc. v. Wilander, 498 U.S. 337, 341-42 (1991).

Do I Qualify As a Seaman Under the Jones Act?

The Jones Act Says:

Any seaman who shall suffer personal injury…may…maintain an action for damages at law.” 46 App U.S.C. § 688.

Most crew members and captains qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act. However, the law has a specific definition, and not everyone will qualify. Whether you meet the definition of a seaman determines how you can pursue compensation when you’re hurt on the job.

Does the Jones Act define a seaman?

The Jones Act itself does not define a seaman. The law says that a person must be a seaman to bring a negligence action for damages. However, the Jones Act does not include a definition of who is – and who is not – a seaman.

Instead, the courts have had to interpret the definition through their opinions.

Many claims have been brought in courts throughout the United States since the passing of the Jones Act on June 5, 1920. The Supreme Court has largely left it to the lower courts to define a seaman. See International Stevedoring Co. v. Haverty, 272 U.S. 50 (1926); Warner v. Goltra, 293 U.S. 155 (1934); Norton v. Warner Co., 321 U.S. 565 (1944).

Of course, this has led to considerable discord between the courts. However, through time, they appear to have reached a consensus regarding the meaning of a seaman and who may file a personal injury claim.

Definition of a Seaman Under the Jones Act

Under the Jones Act, there are three criteria for who qualifies as a seaman:

1. The vessel must be in navigation

This criterion has two prongs – First, the person must be connected to a vessel. Second, that vessel must be in navigation. The definition of a vessel is far-reaching. All types of boats, ships, tugs, floating oil rigs, and platforms meet the definition. See Brunet v. Boh Brothers Construction, 715 F.2d 196 (5th Cir. 1983) (ruling that a barge of interlocking float platforms designed to transport a crane across navigable waters met the standard of a vessel).

To be in navigation, the vessel must be floating in water, operational, and able to travel without the assistance of other vessels. It must be capable of moving, although it doesn’t have to be moving at the time of the injury. The vessel must be on navigable water. Rivers, oceans, and even inland lakes linked to two or more states may qualify. The structure must be primarily for transportation or navigation to have vessel status.

2. The worker must be contributing to the work of the vessel

The worker’s duties must contribute to the function or mission of the vessel. Tonnesen v. Yonkers Constructing Co., 82 F.3d 30, 32 (2d Cir. 1996). The person must be doing the work of the ship. It’s hard to imagine that a person assigned to work on a ship could not meet this definition. The people who operate the ship, manage cargo and even serve meals to workers are all in service of the vessel.

A land-based worker who is incidentally aboard a ship does not become a seaman. Conversely, a seaman doesn’t lose their status when their vessel takes them ashore. All the relevant facts and circumstances can be considered when determining whether a person qualifies. Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995). The Supreme Court rejected the requirement to show that the person aided in the navigation of the vessel, instead imposing a test of whether the person contributed to the function or mission of the vessel. See McDermott, supra.

3. The person must spend a significant amount of time on the vessel

It is not enough for a person to have only an ancillary connection to their employer’s vessel or fleet. They must spend a “substantial” amount of time on the vessel. See Chandris, supra at 359-60. Generally, the courts have interpreted this to mean that at least 30% of the person’s working time must be on a ship.

The following inquiries must be made:

  • Does the worker owe allegiance to the vessel rather than an employer on the shore?

  • Is the work seagoing activity?

  • Does the worker have a single, discrete task on the vessel, or do they sail from port to port and location to location?

See Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, L.L.C. (5th Circ. 2021) (denying Jones Act applicability to a land-based welder who performed transient repair work on two vessels. The worker commuted from his home to the vessel each day).

The courts acknowledge a distinction between the land-based worker and the worker whose duties take them to sea. The worker must have a substantial connection to and duration spent in service of the vessel to qualify as a seaman for the purposes of the Jones Act. The test is not merely the situation at the instance of injury but rather the nature of the enduring relationship of employment.

A worker who meets this three-part test may bring a claim for personal injury compensation if the negligence of their employer hurts them. The inquiry into who qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act may be factually and legally complex. The body of law is extensive; however, concrete principles have developed through years of case law that provide guidance for the injured in determining how to best pursue compensation.

What If I Am Not a Seaman Under the Jones Act?

If you do not meet the qualification of a seaman under the Jones Act, there may be other avenues for you to pursue compensation. For example, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) may provide medical care, compensation, and rehabilitation for many who are not covered by the Jones Act.

Attorneys for Maritime Injuries

If you have been hurt on the job, you may have questions about your situation and how to claim compensation. We are experienced attorneys specializing in maritime injury and compensation. Our team at Haun Mena can evaluate whether you qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act and explore your path to payment and benefits provided by the Act. Contact us today for your consultation.


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