The Jones Act allows “seamen” to file a negligence lawsuit against their employers. In order to be entitled to file suit under the Jones Act, the employee must first satisfy the requirement of being a “seaman”. Very often the first question asked during an interview with an injured Maritime worker is whether or not the individual meets the definition of a Seaman. The technical definition of a seaman is an individual more or less permanently assigned to a vessel or fleet of vessels in navigation. This article will address each of these particular requirements in order for an individual to qualify as a seaman.
The first requirement that the individual be “more or less” permanently assigned to a vessel is usually interpreted as requiring the individual to work at least 30 percent or more of his time aboard a vessel or vessels. Several cases have held that as long as the employee meets the “30 percent rule” he will satisfy the permanency requirement of the seaman definition.
The next requirement is that the individual be assigned to work aboard a vessel or fleet of vessels. This does not necessarily require that the individual work aboard a traditional vessel such as a tug boat, supply vessel or crew boat. In the Gulf of Mexico as well as other regions there are many specialized structures that actually qualify as “vessels” under the Jones Act. Specifically, offshore jack up drilling rigs and semi submersible drilling rigs as well as crane barges and jack up boats all qualify as vessels under the definition of a seaman. The United States Supreme Court recent issued a case stating that any structure that is “typically capable of navigation” may meet the definition of a vessel under the Jones Act for purposes of seaman status.
It should also be noted under the definition of vessel that the employee does not necessarily have to be assigned to one specific vessel. The Jones Act allows an employee to qualify as a seaman even if he is assigned to several vessels which constitute a fleet of vessels. However, there is a requirement that this fleet of vessels be under common ownership or control. In other words, typically individuals who are randomly assigned to vessels owned, operated and controlled by many different parties will have a difficult time establishing that they were assigned to a fleet of vessels under common ownership or control. Austin wire line workers as well as other specialized workers in the Gulf of Mexico face this challenge in satisfying the definition of a seaman under the Jones Act.
The third requirement in order to satisfy the definition of a seaman under the Jones Act is that the individual be assigned to a vessel that is “in navigation”. This requirement has been very broadly defined and essentially means any individual that is in some way contributing to the mission of the vessel, a term that is also broadly defined. Typically the “in navigation” requirement will easily be met.
Satisfying the definition of a seaman under the Jones Act can be critically important for an injured Maritime worker to fully recover due to an injury offshore. Only by meeting the definition of a seaman will the injured employee be allowed to file suit under the Jones Act. And only under the Jones Act will the injured employee collect lost wages, pain and suffering, past and future medical expenses as well as other compensation for his injury. If the injured employee does not meet the definition of a seaman, he will not be allowed to file a negligence, tort type lawsuit against his employer. Instead, he will be restricted to recovering only workers’ compensation type benefits which typically do not fairly compensate the employee.