The Jones Act Overview

The Jones Act is one of the most worker-friendly statutes in existence in the United States because it gives seamen and sailors very broad rights to sue their employers in the event that they are injured while navigating, or attempting to navigate, American waters carrying cargo for U.S. ports.

In the 1910s, the United States was losing about a hundred sailors per month to deep injury or even death. To combat the occupational hazards of being a seaman, Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 which gives vast monetary recovery rights to sailors if they are injured or killed while at sea. The purpose of this highly pro-worker maritime law was and is to incentivize ship operators to adopt the highest safety standards possible by imposing stiff penalties for marine workers that are injured on the job.

The Jones Act gives injured seaman four strong ground rules that greatly increase the odds of success in their lawsuit:

First, in making a claim, an injured admiralty employee must show: (1) that he was on the job at the time the injury occurred; (2) that he was an employee of the company that he is suing; (3) that the ship owner or operator was negligent; and (4) that this negligence was the cause of the injury.

Normally, in typical negligence causes of action, a party needs to show that the negligent party owed a legal duty to do or not do something, and that a breach of this duty led to the injury. But maritime law is much more forgiving, as the Jones Act only requires that the ship owner or operator “played any part, no matter how small, in bringing about or actually causing the injury or damage. If the ship owner or operator contributed in any way towards the injury, then it shall be liable for damages.” This rule comes from the case of Robin v. Wilson Bros. Drilling, 719 F.2d 96 (5th Cir. 1983).

This is very favorable to anyone who is injured at sea. Having to show that the ship owner or operator was “in any way contributed” to the injury is a much softer standard than the typical negligence case that requires a showing that some type of duty to exercise care was breached (the reason this is the case is because negligence arises at common law, but can be amended by statutes such as the Jones Act to have higher or lower thresholds of evidentiary burdens.)

This low threshold for injury likely means that there are thousands of people who have been injured working on a vessel off the coast and have had a legal remedy under applicable maritime law but haven’t exercised their rights because it doesn’t “really feel” like the company did something wrong. The standard of “in any way caused” an admiralty-related injury is a much lower standard than what we’re trained to think of in instances that trigger employer liability.

Related to this benefit is the automatic presumption of negligence that arises under 3rd and 5th Circuit case law interpreting the Jones Act which states that any maritime employee who is injured while performing a service for which he was not properly trained will lead to the creation of an “automatic presumption” of negligence on the vessel operator’s behalf. Typically, lawyers representing the injured seamen will argue that they never received training

A second benefit, though not expressly permitted by the Jones Act, is the likely recovery of attorney’s fees. Normally, workers at a disadvantage when it comes to suing their employees because typical workers do not have tens of thousands of dollars to spend in legal whereas whereas the employer is usually better positioned to hire the best attorneys to provide a defense in the lawsuit.

Well, an advantage of Jones Act claims, and this is generally applicable to maritime law claims as well, is that judges really, really, really do not like to encounter sailors injured while working at sea. It is a type of lawsuit that has a long history of triggering judicial sympathy. Frequently, this sympathy manifests itself in an award of attorney’s fees to the injured seaman. In ordinary cases, the American rule is that each side has to pay their own attorneys throughout the litigation.

But maritime injuries come with a reasonable chance of getting your attorneys’ fees paid for by arguing that the injury was preventable if the vessel-operator took additional precautions. This means that good Jones Act lawyers are willing to work on behalf of the injured seaman because they know there is a chance they could receive a five-figure bill payment from the vessel operator. It is not a guarantee, but a probabilistic bet that has enabled injured sailors at sea to receive good legal representation despite having limited funds.

There is a social cost associated with these rights. In 1980, there were approximately 3,000 vessels that were eligible for protection under the Jones Act. Now, there are are only 570 such vessels in existence. Transporting goods via aircraft is already cost-competitive with shipping, and it comes with the advantage of not having the special employee protections that seamen enjoy.

But this change can’t entirely be explained by a shift to air travel. Most notably, oil companies have begun hiring foreign ships to transport crude oil from Texas to the Atlantic Coast of Canada because foreign ships do not receive any Congressional protection. Basically, Exxon, Chevron, and Conoco enter into licensing agreements with Canadian and Mexican ships in order to transport crude, such that any accident would not trigger the immense liability under the Jones Act.

Damages calculations for violations of the Jones Act can be extreme. A seaman injured at sea is entitled to all the money they could have made had they not been injured, all their medical expenses, plus “found damages” which includes the economic value of household tasks that you cannot be performed while injured (for instance, if you injure your hand while on board a vessel, you would get damages for not being able to rake the yard, not being able to prepare your own meals, etc.).

These damages calculations are incredibly generous compared to what you would be able to get under, say, a modern-day worker’s compensation claim. Actually, during Depression-Era American, New Orleans politician Huey Long “Kingfish” sought for worker injuries to mirror the remedies available under the Jones Act, but FDR thought it would stifle business while America was in desperate economic straits and the issue was never revisited.

It is also interesting to see how lawyers choose to strategize about bringing a Jones Act claim forward. A quirk of American maritime law is that it exists almost entirely by statutory law rather than common law, and because Congress was in the spirit of granting broad rights in 1920, this is one of the most unique maritime laws in that it grants claimants the right to bring claims under either the state law courts or the federal courts. It is also gives the injured seaman the right to a jury trial if he so desires.

In Texas, where juries aren’t particularly forgiving or sympathetic with injured workers (compared to other juries throughout the country), it is common for Jones Act attorneys to waive the right to jury trial and go straight to the Federal Eastern District Court of Texas because the judges there are familiar with the slight negligence standard when making a claim. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, where the juries are quite sympathetic to injured workers, attorneys are more likely to bring the claim in Louisiana state court and demand a jury trial.

The Jones Act is a pretty interesting parallel scheme to worker’s compensation claim. It is quick to find employer liability, and it defines the scope of damages broadly. During at least one period in American history, there was serious debate as to whether our worker’s compensation laws should mirror the Jones Act. That did not happen, and now, seeing the broad rights under the Jones Act strikes us as unusually generous. If the policy rationale behind the Jones Act did expand to other causes of action, I suspect you would see much more behavior analogous to the oil companies that rely on shipping contracts with Canadian and Mexican shippers as a way to dodge liability.

Notice: This article is for entertainment purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice.