The Jones Act is a federal law that protects injured workers in maritime industries, or seamen, and provides for potential damage awards that are often much greater than that afforded by traditional workers' compensation laws. There's just one twist: The letter of the law does not define the term seaman very clearly.
This leaves courts to determine whether an injured worker filing a claim under the Jones Act qualifies as a seaman — which is just one reason why choosing a legal team with deep experience in maritime law is so crucial for injured workers.
Before you can win a lawsuit against an employer under the Jones Act, you must convince the court that you qualify for seaman status. That isn't always such a clear-cut designation — which can sometimes be a good thing. Courts have expanded the definition of seaman to include a broad range of workers beyond those involved in navigating a vessel. Welders, iron workers, and construction laborers, just to name a few, have all been granted seaman status in successful Jones Act cases, depending on the type of work they were performing at the time of their injury. In short, if you are doing work in, around, or over the water, you should consult a qualified maritime attorney to determine whether you have a Jones Act claim or just a workers’ compensation claim.
Similarly, don't let the word term "seaman" get in the way. You do not have to be injured on the ocean or at sea, to qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act. Workers of all genders on any navigable waterway, including rivers, are eligible for recovery under this law.
With all these variables, how do you know if you qualify as a seaman according to the Jones Act? The United States Supreme Court established a two-part test for the designation in the landmark case Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis (1995).
- The Wilander Test - The first qualification derives from the earlier case McDermott Int'l, Inc. v. Wilander (1991), in which the Supreme Court rejected the legal claim that only workers involved in navigating a vessel qualified as seamen. That is, any worker who "contributed to his vessel's function or to the accomplishment of its mission" could be considered a seaman. This opens the door to cleaners, oil workers, construction crews, you name it; if a vessel is navigating a waterway to accomplish some task, any employee involved in that task may be a candidate for a successful Jones Act case. That is, of course, if they also satisfy the second test laid out in Chandris.
- The Substantial Connection Test - In order to avoid opening up Jones Act suits to land-based employees who occasionally work aboard vessels, the Supreme Court developed this second criteria for the seaman. "A seaman must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature," the Supreme Court states in Chandris.
How do you determine that connection? The current rule of thumb is that an employee who spends at least 30 percent of their working time in service of a vessel in navigation qualifies. Note that the vessel doesn't have to be in motion at the time of the injury for a worker to be covered under the Jones Act. According to the U.S. Code, any watercraft that is "capable of being used as a means of transportation on water" is a vessel "in navigation" in this context, whether it's tied up at the dock or going down the Mississippi River.
So, finally, how do you know if you should bring a suit under the Jones Act for an occupational injury? The best way is to seek out attorneys who are experts in maritime law. The 30-percent substantial connection requirement is a rule of thumb, not a strict legal fact. There may be other mitigating factors that would provide seaman status beyond the general conditions outlined above.
In short, if you've been injured at a job that takes place on or around the water, contact Wilkins Schneller Law at (314) 588-8000 for a free consultation.