Jones Act Protects Seaman’s Rights

In 1920, the Merchant Marine Act became law, which is one of the three federal laws often referred to as the Jones Act. It is a cabotage law that also has provisions protecting the rights of seamen.

The Jones Act places restrictions on the carriage of goods or passengers between United States ports to U.S. built and flagged ships. Under this law, at least two-thirds of the crew must be U.S. citizens. In addition, any foreign repair work of U.S. flagged ships’ hull and superstructure is limited to 10 percent foreign-built steel weight. Basically, this restriction prohibits U.S. vessel owners from renovating their vessels at overseas shipyards.

There are also provisions in the Jones Act that protect seamen’s rights. The Jones Act allows injured seamen to pursue damages from their employers for negligence on the part of the vessel owner, captain or other crewmembers. This protection is similar to that of railroad workers. The law states that any seaman who suffers personal injury in the course of employment may take action to collect damages and has the right to a trial by jury. The action can be brought in a U.S. federal court or a state court.

A case heard by the United States Supreme Court, known as Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 115 S.Ct. 2171 (1995), established a benchmark for determining the status of an employee as a “Jones Act seaman.” Based on the Supreme Court ruling, a worker who spends less than 30 percent of his time in the service of a vessel on navigable waters is presumed not to be a Jones Act seaman.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 has been revised numerous times, with the most recent revision in 2006.