Defining “seaman” under the Jones Act can be complicated

When Congress passed the Jones Act in 1920, seamen gained the right to sue ship owners for injuries they suffered as a result of the ship owners’ or fellow crew members’ negligence. What Congress failed to do, however, was specifically define “seaman,” and there has been much confusion among the courts about who should enjoy the protections that the Jones Act affords seamen.

Tests for seaman status

Because Congress failed to explicitly state who qualifies as a seaman in the Jones Act, the court will look to previous case law to determine whether a person is a seaman. Past court decisions have helped to spell out some characteristics that those with seaman status share.

According to a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision, one of the requirements for a person to attain seaman status is that his or her job duties must “contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.” The other requirement that the Court stated in that decision that is necessary for seaman status is that a person have a connection to a “vessel in navigation” or group of vessels that is “substantial in both its duration and its nature.”

Based upon the Supreme Court’s decision, lower courts have found that a number of occupations that people hold on ships “contribute to the function of the vessel,” such as bookkeepers, bartenders, maids, cooks and telephone operators, even though these jobs are not traditionally those that “seamen” perform. The court must look to the totality of the circumstances and the function of the particular ship in question to see if a person helps accomplish the vessel’s mission.

The tests established by the Supreme Court do not automatically eliminate from seaman status those who must go ashore in service of the vessel. Similarly, a land-based worker does not attain seaman status if his or her work occurs onboard a ship briefly. A widely-used rule for determining whether a person’s connection to a ship is “substantial in duration and nature” comes from a Fifth Circuit case. In that case, the court stated that, in general, if a person spends at least 30 percent of his or her time on the vessel he or she is likely a seaman. The court was quick to note, however, that this was just one factor of many to analyze when determining seaman status.

Speak with an attorney

Determining whether a person is a seaman for the purposes of the Jones Act can be a complicated process. The Jones Act offers valuable protections and benefits for those engaged in the often dangerous work of a seaman. It important to have an experienced maritime law attorney handling maritime injury cases to make sure that the court recognizes the seaman status of those working on ships who need the benefits the Jones Act provides. If you have been injured while working on a ship, speak with a skilled maritime lawyer who can help you recover for your losses.