What does Unseaworthiness mean in a Jones Act case?

fishing boat

In popular culture, an unseaworthy vessel might be a boat that can’t float at all, or a ship that’s in imminent danger of sinking. But according to the Jones Act, a law created decades ago which still governs safety aboard ships, nearly any unsafe condition on a vessel can be considered to be unseaworthiness.

Under maritime law, a vessel is considered seaworthy if its hull, equipment, and crew are adequately designed and maintained so that they can perform their intended functions. When a vessel is unseaworthy, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t float, or even that it can’t perform most functions of a ship. As a matter of fact, even a ship with a damaged engine may not be considered unseaworthy under maritime law, so long as that damage does not cause any safety hazards to the crew or passengers.

Unseaworthy conditions happen when a vessel is not a safe place for a seaman to work, or when it does not provide him with the appliances he needs to do his job safely. Unsafe conditions on a ship may include lack of proper training, improper maintenance of equipment, slick conditions on the deck caused by a spill, and missing safety equipment, among other possible problems.

What is the Jones Act, and how does it affect seamen?

When a worker is injured on the job in the United States, their claim is handled by their state’s Workmans Compensation program. In many cases involving workmans compensation, it doesn’t matter whether an employer’s negligence caused an on-the-job injury. States generally follow set procedures and reimburse for set amounts after on-the-job injuries. While some attorneys do handle cases involving on-the-job injuries, most personal injury attorneys will only get involved if the injury involved the negligence of a third party like a contractor or a random driver on the road.

Sometimes, however, people who work on ships or at ports and docks might find themselves in the position of being injured in an area that doesn’t fall under any state’s jurisdiction. In these cases, compensation for their medical care, time off work, and other damages can be harder to recover. The Jones Act only allows injured seamen to recover damages if their employer was negligent or if the vessel they were working on is deemed unseaworthy.

This means that when a seaman or longshore worker is injured on the job, he or she is required to prove that the injury was mainly caused by the negligence of their employer or a third party. However, that burden of proof is smaller in Jones Act cases than it would be in certain other accident cases involving negligence. All that is needed to recover damages under the Jones Act is "featherweight" causation, meaning that an employer’s negligence caused even 1% of the employee’s injury.

Who pays when someone is injured at sea?

In Jones Act cases, it is common to have more than one defendant. Because it is the duty of a vessel’s owner to make sure that their vessel is seaworthy, a seaman who is injured on the job may sue the owner of that vessel for negligence. They may also sue their employer, who is not necessarily the same person or company as the owner of the vessel.

Because Jones Act cases can be complicated, it may be wise to speak with an experience personal injury attorney about your rights as a victim.