Injured offshore workers cannot file worker’s compensation claims under normal state and federal laws. Instead, they must turn to maritime law, specifically to the Jones Act. Under this critical piece of federal legislation, seamen have the right to sue their employers if negligence has led to a workplace injury. That sounds simple enough, but the particulars can get complicated.
Who qualifies for compensation and who doesn’t? What kinds of accidents come under the auspices of the law? Minor accidents? What about major drilling rig disasters? Keep reading to learn more about the Jones Act and what it means for offshore workers.
Who Qualifies for the Jones Act?
Only injured “seamen” can seek redress under the Jones Act. What does that mean? Who qualifies? The definition of a seaman remains a thorny legal issue, even after nearly a century of case law. To put it simply, the statute defines a seaman as a person who works on some kind of vessel and performs a significant amount of his or her work onboard the ship.
Anyone, from the captain of a merchant ship to a part-time waiter on a cruise ship can fall under the purview of the Jones Act. Nevertheless, workers must spend at least 30 percent of their time on the vessel and must contribute to the overall function of the ship. If they spend more than 60 percent of their work time on land, they will have a difficult time taking advantage of the Jones Act.
For some, the issue is cut and dried. As long as they meet the criteria that define a seaman, they’re able to file a claim under the Jones Act. Other cases suffer from ambiguity. The law is rife with gray areas, but the vessel requirement presents the most significant challenge.
In order to qualify under the law, seamen must work on a vessel that’s “in navigation.” That means the ship or boat must:
- Float on the water
- Be operable
- Be able to move on its power (e.g., without the help of tugboats)
- Not be anchored to the sea floor
- Travel through navigable waters that could be used for domestic and foreign trade
Examples of navigable waters include oceans and rivers. Lakes also qualify, as long as they span at least two states and connect to other navigable bodies of water. Thus, the Jones Act excludes injuries that occur on stationary oil rigs but leaves the door open for certain types of mobile drilling rig deaths and injuries.
Someone who works on the following types of vessels may eligible for a Jones Act claim:
- Cruise ships
- Cargo ships
- Commercial fishing boats
- Tug boats
- Jack-up oil rigs
- Drilling ships
- Semi-submersible oil drilling rigs
- Tension leg platform oil rigs
- Other maritime vessels
Finally, only U.S.-flagged and owned ships qualify as official “Jones Act vessels.” That means U.S. individuals or companies must own a substantial share in the watercraft before it falls under U.S. maritime law.
Just because offshore workers suffered injuries on the job, it doesn’t automatically entitle them to compensation under maritime law. They must first prove negligence. The owner, captain, supervisors, or even crew members must have neglected their duty in some way, and that negligence must have caused or contributed to the seaman’s injury.
It doesn’t matter whether careless behavior leads to minor slip and falls, deadly drilling accidents, or even long-term illnesses; injured workers have the right to file a Jones Act claim when their employers or co-workers fail to live up to legal expectations.
Negligence comes in many forms. It describes any failure to take the proper level of care, legally defined as the amount of care that a person of ordinary prudence would have taken given the same circumstances. With regards to worker’s compensation cases, including the Jones Act, negligence describes anything that a person or entity does or fails to do that contributes to an unsafe workplace.
In other words, the law demands that employers do everything in their power to create a safe work environment. They’re even responsible for the actions of their employees. Any unsafe action or harmful omission can open employers up to liability.
Common examples of negligence include:
- Unsafe work conditions (e.g., oil on deck)
- Improperly maintained equipment
- Improper training
- Lack of safety equipment
- Unsafe work procedures/method
Thus, if oil covers the deck and makes it slippery, the law holds the owner and/or any responsible employees liable for any injuries that result. Failure to inspect and maintain equipment also constitutes negligence. Even if a co-worker assaults someone else, a Jones Act case can be brought against the employer.
Compensation Under the Jones Act
The Jones Act specifies what type of compensation claimants may receive. At the very least, injured workers are entitled to receive maintenance and cure. That includes both medical bills and day-to-day living expenses.
First, vessel owners owe their injured workers the full cost of medical care. That means the employer must pay all of the plaintiff’s work-related medical bills until they’re cured or until they’ve reached the point at which further medical care can no longer improve their condition. Given the serious nature of most maritime injuries, “maximum medical improvement” can take months or even years, and the final sum may be considerable.
Meanwhile, an injured worker must have enough money on which to live. The law demands that owners make daily “maintenance” payments during the recovery process. If they refuse or neglect their duty, one of the personal injury attorneys at Johnson Garcia LLP can initiate further legal proceedings and force them to uphold their end of the employer-employee bargain.
Why It Matters
Every day, offshore workers brave perilous conditions. They deal with dangerous machinery. They work in high-pressure environments and put themselves at considerable risk of accident and even drilling rig wrecks. In addition, they spend large chunks of time far from the comforts of home and family.
A generous wage or salary may balance out the considerable inconvenience employees experience when they work offshore, but it can never compensate for unnecessary hazards, particularly when you consider the billions of dollars that corporations rake in while they cut corners and ignore safety protocols.
That’s why the Jones Act is so important. Multi-billion dollar corporations have no excuse. The workers who form the backbone of their operations deserve better than second-class treatment. They deserve respect, compassion, and compensation.
Unfortunately, too many vessel owners shirk their duty, both before and after tragedy strikes. They become lax in their enforcement of safety procedures, fail to upgrade costly but ineffective equipment, and offer paltry settlements whenever they can get away with it. Only a passionate maritime law attorney can hold their feet to the fire and ensure that they fulfill their obligations—all of their obligations.
The Jones Act Law Firm of Johnson Garcia LLP
Injured workers need strong legal representation. They need someone who will fight aggressively on their behalf. Major corporations have enough money to hire high-powered lawyers and bide their time. You have no such luxury.
Have you been involved in a drilling rig accident or another type of offshore accident? You need an attorney that knows maritime law and the maritime industry. The last thing you should do is waste valuable time describing the nature of your work and the type of accident you experienced.
At Johnson Garcia LLP, you’ll find Jones Act attorneys who know the industry inside and out. Over the past two decades, we’ve represented big oil field service companies, as well as major drilling contractors and operators. We’re familiar with the nature of your work. More importantly, we know maritime law, and we know the obligations that employers must fulfill.
Don’t waste time on inexperienced lawyers. Contact the experienced Jones Act law firm of Johnson Garcia LLP today.