Maritime Injury: The Jones Act and How it Applies to Recovering Damages

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit addressed an injury case that involved a crane mechanic who was injured on an offshore drilling rig. The man was injured when he fell through an uncovered ladder hole on the top portion of the crane cab which was about fourteen feet above the deck of the rig. As a result of his injuries, he is now unable to work as a crane mechanic, but he has returned to work in a clerical capacity for the company in which he was working for previously. The two parties in this case are the employee and the owner of the rig on which he was injured; however, this case is complicated because the employer is also involved in the worker’s compensation claims.

This case involved a cross appeal where both parties appealed some part of the lower court’s decision. There were a few issues that arose in this case that that Court of Appeals addressed. This case touches on the Jones Act and considers the concept of contributory negligence. This case is also based on the Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act so it affects the employer and their insurance company as well. This post will present the basic facts of this case and discuss the Jones Act. A follow up post will address the worker’s compensation aspects of the court’s decision.1
The employee appealed based on the claim that that he did not contribute to his own injury by being careless. This concept is generally known as contributory negligence. He also argued that even if he was partially responsible, the Jones Act protected him from being punished for his contribution to the injury. The owner of the rig appealed based on the claim that they were also not partially negligent. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considered all of these issues in turn and affirmed the lower court’s judgment. The court states that both parties were partially negligent in this case; the owner of the rig left open the cover through which the employee fell and the employee was not watching where he was going, thus contributing to his injury.

In response to this ruling, the employee argued that the Jones Act does not allow his damages award to be reduced based on his contribution to his own injury. The Jones Act is officially called the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 although it is commonly referred to as the Jones Act because Senator Wesley Jones sponsored the Act. The Act covers sailors who previously had few options for recovery if they were injured while performing their duties at sea. It offers sailors a variety of protections and also supports the American seaman because it requires that 75% of crew members be American citizens on all American owned or American flagged ships. It also restricts the parts used in the construction of the ship to be predominately American made. The Jones Act was clearly a significant benefit for the American sailor even as the United States was increasing their global presence.

The benefits that the Jones Act gives sailors are extensive. These benefits include payment of damages if the sailor is injured based on the seaworthiness of the boat or the negligence of the ship’s owners or other crew members. These damages include not only money to cover medical expenses, but the sailor must also be paid a daily stipend while he or she is recovering from the injury. The Jones Act also provides death benefits should a sailor be killed while performing his duties at sea. Under this Act, even if the employee is negligent, if the employer is negligent then the employee’s negligence gets canceled out and does not factor into monetary damage issues.2
What the employee in this case failed to realize is that the Jones Act only covers sailors and those working on ships. The employee was neither a sailor nor working on a ship; he was a contracted crane mechanic working on an oil rig. Therefore, although the Jones Act offers a lot of protections at sea, the court determined that it cannot be applied in this case. If the Jones Act had applied then the crane mechanic’s negligence would not have mattered when determining the amount of damages to award for his injury.

The Jones Act is a complicated act that has complex and extensive benefits. A competent attorney is needed to help determine if an injured seaman can qualify for benefits. For the second half of this case regarding the workman’s compensation claim, look for “Maritime Injury: Longshore Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act” in upcoming blog posts.

If you or someone you know has been injured at sea then contact the Berniard Law Firm Toll free at 1-866-574-8005 and we will be happy to help review your case.