Who is a Seaman or Crew Member under the Jones Act?
Unlike land workers, maritime workers cannot claim worker’s compensation benefits. Instead, an injured maritime worker or crew member must file a claim for damages under the Jones Act. The Jones Act gives a maritime worker, more specifically a "seaman" or crew member, the right to claim damages against his employer in the event of injury caused by the employer’s negligence or a ship owner’s failure to ensure the seaworthiness of a vessel.
Under the Jones Act, the plaintiff can claim loss of income, medical expenses, and money compensation due to an injury suffered aboard a vessel in the course of performing his duties or while in the service of the ship. However, the Jones Act only protects maritime workers that meet the legal definition of "seaman" or crew member.
The Jones Act does not define the status of a seaman or crew member. Rather, case law has sought to clarify the legal definition of a seaman or crew member. In two cases, Harbor Tug and Barge Company v. Papai (1997) and in Chandris v. Latsis (1995), The U.S. Supreme Court stated that to be classified as a seaman or crew member and be covered by the Jones Act, the plaintiff must meet two essential requirements:
- His "duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission."
- He “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 first requirement is fairly self-explanatory.
Every vessel that takes to the water does so with a mission, whether recreational, scientific, or commercial. The mission might be to transport passengers from one port to another or it may be to transport cargo. Every seaman constantly aboard the vessel contributes to the fulfillment of the vessel’s mission. That is, everyone working aboard a vessel is contributing in some way to a vessel’s mission or they would not be aboard. The cook, the waiter, the cleaner, the navigator, the ship’s doctor, the engineer are all contributing in their own way to the fulfillment of the vessel’s mission.
It is with the second requirement that things start looking a little tricky, and this is why it is important that in the event of an injury that you contact a maritime lawyer. This is because while you might meet the first requirement, you may not necessarily meet the second requirement, and if you do not, you may not qualify to file a claim under the Jones Act.
The second requirement for defining a seaman or crew member has two parts: the plaintiff must work on a "vessel in navigation" and his contribution or work is "substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature".
To qualify as a seaman or crew member, a maritime worker must work most of his time on a vessel that is in navigation. And it is the "in navigation" bit that is important. For a vessel to meet this definition it must meet the following criteria:
- The vessel must operate on navigable waters, which are waters that the vessel can travel across to reach the United States or another state within the Union. Navigable waters could be an ocean, or a large river, or an inland lake.
- The vessel must be capable of moving under its own power.
- The vessel must not be permanently anchored to the sea floor.
This strict definition excludes oil rigs. It also excludes vessels sitting in ship breaking yards. While an oil rig appears to float, it can only move if it is towed. For most of the time, an oil rig is anchored to the sea floor and so does not meet the definition of a vessel in navigation.
When it comes to assessing the worker’s contribution to the operation of a particular vessel or a fleet of related vessels, a seaman or crew member is one who contributes at least 30 percent of his time aboard in the fulfillment of the vessel’s mission.
Consider this example: an administrative clerk who normally works in an office on land but occasionally catches rides on ships to and from ports suffers an injury while aboard. Is he entitled to file a Jones Act claim?
Well, it depends.
If he performs no work aboard the ship that contributes to the operation of the vessel, then no, he does not qualify as a seaman or crew member under the Jones Act. If this administrative clerk spends 40 percent of his time aboard a ship performing duties that contributed to the operation of the vessel and the balance of his work time in an office on land, then he could potentially qualify as a seaman or crew member because more than 30 percent of his work time is given over to duties aboard a vessel in navigation.
A court would look at a plaintiff’s career with the shipping company. If he spent more than 30 percent of his career aboard a particular vessel or fleet of vessels, he could qualify as a seaman and seek damages under the Jones Act.
Because the Jones Act does not explicitly define what a seaman or crew member is under the law, case law has been used to give the term "seaman" a legal definition. Because the legal definition is not exactly cut and dry and due to the variety of vessels in operation today, as well as the slew of maritime-related jobs that exist, it is important that a maritime worker seek legal counsel in the event of an injury to determine if he qualifies as a seaman or crew member under the Jones Act before filing a claim.