Do I Meet the Definition of a Seaman?
In order to meet the definition of a seaman under the Jones Act, you must meet three requirements:
1. You must be onboard a vessel that is “in navigation”. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the vessel must have been moving at the time of the accident.
2. You must have an employment relationship to that vessel that is substantial both in nature and duration. For example, employees working on barges, casino boats, crew boats, cruise ships, dredges, fishing vessels, freighters, jack-up rigs, semi-submersible rigs, tankers, tow boats, tug boats or any other similar vessels are generally considered seamen under the Jones Act.
3. You must contribute to the “purpose of the vessel” on which you are employed. Early cases insisted that in order to qualify, a seaman had to actually “reef and steer” or, in other words, directly contribute to the vessel’s navigation. The Courts broadened this definition over time to include generally any shipboard worker who goes to sea with a vessel, including, for example, fishermen on commercial fishing boats, divers on diving support vessels and even bartenders on cruise ships.
What Qualifies as a Jones Act “Vessel”?
Because the legal term “vessel” has been difficult for the courts to precisely define, a three-part test was developed to determine the qualifications of a given structure. First, the structure itself must be used, or capable of being used, for maritime transportation. Second, the vessel must actually be in navigation, not stacked or laid-up awaiting future use. And third, the vessel in navigation must be part of an identifiable fleet under common ownership or control.
As technology has advanced into the 21st century, many seamen now work on vessels that are non-traditional, like jack-up rigs and semi-submersibles. As a result, you should contact an experienced Jones Act Maritime Injury Lawyer to help determine whether or not you worked aboard a structure that qualifies as a “vessel” under the law.
Workers’ Rights Under the Jones Act
Jones Act seamen are entitled to several legal rights following an on-the-job injury. Unfortunately, most seamen are never told of these rights and, as a result, fail to enforce them. Without knowledge of these rights, injured seamen can end up receiving less than they deserve in the way of medical care and financial support. Vessel owners often count on this lack of Jones Act knowledge and abandon seamen during their hour of need knowing that most will simply take it, without ever realizing that there is a way to get much more. It is extremely important that maritime seamen educate themselves regarding the Jones Act and the protections it offers in order to avoid being hung out to dry.
As always, the Maritime Accident Lawyers at Zehl & Associates represent clients on a contingency fee basis. This means that you only pay our firm when you win your case through a settlement or verdict.
Following an offshore accident, an injured seaman is generally entitled to certain protections, including maintenance (money for food and shelter), cure (medical care and treatment), lost wages through the end of the hitch and paid transportation home.
Important Steps Following an Offshore Injury
1. Immediately report the offshore accident to your supervisor. Make sure that your supervisor records the incident in the proper manner.
2. Request medical attention as soon as possible. Remember, you are NOT required to see a company doctor. Company doctors are employed by your boss and are not on your side. All too often, these hired guns will tell you to simply take on over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and then tell you to return to work in a couple of days.
3. Gather contact information for any witnesses to your accident.
4. Take photographs of the accident site and of any other conditions present onboard the vessel that contributed to your injury.
5. Make sure not to sign anything until you have spoken with an Experienced Jones Act lawyer!
This is extremely important, as vessel owners and their “claims reps” will often try to get you to sign waivers that prevent you from being able to recover the damages that you’d otherwise be entitled to. Don’t give your employer a chance to avoid paying.
Maintenance and Cure
Under the Jones Act, seamen are entitled to specific, no-fault benefits in the event that they are injured or become ill while in the service of their vessel. These benefits are commonly known as “maintenance and cure”.
Vessel Owners are obligated to provide maintenance and cure benefits to any seaman who becomes injured or ill while working onboard the vessel, regardless of who is at fault. If maintenance and cure payments are wrongfully denied by your employer, you have the right to sue for punitive damages, a form of damages designed to punish vessel owners (and their insurers) who refuse to comply with their maintenance and cure obligations.
Maintenance: the amount of money paid to a seaman for each day that he is unable to work because of an injury or illness.
The amounts range from $10 up to $35 per day. The money is meant to cover reasonable living expenses, like room and board, until the seaman has recovered enough to return to work. While the amount is staggeringly low by today’s standards, it is still better than not receiving any money at all. While some companies may offer to pay more than this rate, they typically attach strings, including a demand that you give up your right to sue in exchange for the extra money. Contact a knowledgeable Jones Act lawyer before you agree to anything.
Cure: this refers to the vessel owner’s duty to pay any medical costs incurred by an ill or injured seaman until he or she reaches maximum medical improvement (MMI).
Maximum Medical Improvement: a seaman is considered to have reached “MMI” when he or she is at the point where additional medical treatment will not cure or correct the injury or condition.
The implied warranty of seaworthiness protects seamen from dangerous conditions present onboard vessels. This warranty arises out of the ship itself and only applies against the owner of that particular vessel. The implied warranty of seaworthiness allows an injured seaman to hold the vessel owner liable for any dangerous condition that contributed to that injury. These dangerous conditions, like faulty equipment, missing safety gear or slippery deck surfaces, can be enough to support a finding of unseaworthiness.
Statute of Limitations
Generally, the statute of limitations for a Jones Act claim is three (3) years from the date the injury took place. One exception to this rule applies to any vessel associated with the United States government. If your claim involves a vessel that is owned by, operated by or under contract to the U.S. government, it is likely that you will have a much shorter time period to file your claim under the Act.
If you have suffered an injury while working at sea, you must take immediate control of your situation. Do not expect your employer to help you. Even if your boss does cover maintenance (living expenses) and cure (medical expenses) as he is legally obligated to do, you may still be entitled to additional damages due to the unseaworthiness of the vessel or the negligence of others in causing your injury. In the wake of an accident, it is absolutely essential that you contact an experienced maritime accident lawyer to determine your options.
Three years may seem like a long time, but in reality it is never a good idea to wait to file. The sooner you contact an experienced maritime injury lawyer, the better off you will be. Remember, maritime employers count on you not knowing the law.
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