Evaluating a Workplace Injury Under the Jones Act Starts with These Two Questions

Filing a lawsuit under the Jones Act (Merchant Marine Act of 1920) can be a big advantage to any workplace injury case. Not only does a cause of action under the Jones Act entitle the plaintiff to a jury trial, it also entitles the plaintiff to the choice of bringing the cause of action in state or federal court without fear of the defendant successfully removing the action to another venue. Successful suits under the Jones Act often yield awards significantly larger than what can be yielded through the conventional worker’s compensation system (although, of course, that all depends on the details of the case).  

As the official name of the act implies, not every injured worker has standing under the Jones Act. However, don’t get the impression that the Jones Act is just for the professional sailor or barge worker. Construction laborers, welders and iron workers (to name a few non-sailor occupations) have been found to have standing under the Jones Act. It’s not the plaintiff’s occupation per se that matters. What matters is the kind of work that the plaintiff was doing at the time of the injury and whether the plaintiff has a “substantial connection” to a vessel in navigation.

Here are two questions to ask that can help determine whether a plaintiff has standing under the Jones Act for his or her workplace injury.

Did the injury occur in, over or near a navigable waterway?

This question may seem silly, but note that the question points out that it does not matter whether a watercraft is in motion when the injury occurs. Jones Act plaintiffs can have standing for workplace injuries that occur while working on or near docked vessels, barges, or work platforms. Moreover, the U.S. Code declares that any watercraft that is "capable of being used as a means of transportation on water" is a vessel "in navigation." As mentioned above, a plaintiff need not be a literal sailor to have standing under the Jones Act.

Does the injured plaintiff’s work have a “substantial connection” to a vessel in navigation?

This question is trickier than the first. Fortunately, the U.S. Code tells us that a watercraft merely must be “capable of being used as a means of transportation on water” to be considered a vessel “in navigation.” Determining the “substantial connection” aspect of the question is the tricky part.

Practitioners have a rule of thumb that if at least 30% of a worker’s time is spent in service of a navigable vessel, then the worker has a “substantial connection.” However, this is merely a practitioner’s guideline. The 30% rule of thumb is not the rule of law. The “substantial connection” test is applied case-by-case and is informed by specific (and ever-changing) Jones Act case law. If a plaintiff spends less than 30% of her or his time in service of a navigable vessel, she or he may still have standing under the Jones Act. At the same time, spending at least 30% of one’s time in the service of a navigable vessel does not guarantee standing.

In order to get a more clear answer on this standing issue, it’s important to consult and/or refer such matters to experienced Jones Act lawyers. Wilkins Schneller Law can help. Call us at 314-588-8000 for a free consultation.