a international waters cargo vessel full of containers at seas representign a jones act vessel

What Is a Jones Act Vessel?

If you were injured while working on a boat or similar vessel, you may recover compensation for your injuries under the Jones Act. However, there are strict requirements you must meet before you can claim under the act. We answered some frequently asked questions so you can understand whether you are protected under the Jones Act.

What Is the Jones Act?

The Jones Act, formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is a central piece of legislation that regulates the U.S. maritime industry. It has three objectives: to protect the country’s shipping interests, to support and develop a merchant marine system, and to protect injured seamen.

The Jones Act allows seamen who are injured while doing their job to seek compensation from their employers. Compensation can cover economic and non-economic damages, such as medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost wages.

Why Is the Jones Act Important?

The Jones Act is an important piece of legislation for seamen that provides protection for any work-related injury. Before Congress enacted the act, injured seamen had little protection. If you were injured, you could only rely on the doctrine of maintenance and cure. The doctrine of maintenance and cure only mandates your employer to provide medical care, feeding, and lodging until they recover.

The Jones Act changed that. Now, as an injured seaman, you can file negligence claims against your employer for your injuries. As long as you can prove that the negligence of your employer, a crew member, or the shipowner caused your injury, you can recover full compensation.

What Is a Jones Act Vessel?

Before you can claim Jones Act protection, your vessel must meet these three requirements:

A Citizen or American Company Must Own It

To qualify for protection under the Jones Act, the vessel involved must be owned by a U.S. citizen or a U.S. company. Although the vessel may operate on international waters, it must be U.S.-owned. This is vital because a major goal of the Jones Act is to ensure that only U.S.-owned and U.S.-built ships can transport goods from one U.S. port to another.

It Must Operate in Navigable Waters

For a vessel to qualify as a Jones Act vessel, it must operate in navigable waters. Navigable waters are bodies of water that can be used in interstate or foreign commerce, including oceans, connecting canals, and ports. Also, any river or lake connecting two states or leading to the ocean may be deemed to be navigable.

It Must Be Used To Transport Goods or Passengers

In 2005, the Supreme Court in the case of Stewart v. Dutra Construction Company stated that under the Jones Act, “vessels” are “watercraft or other artificial contrivances used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” So, vessels include fishing boats, freighters, barges, ferries, cruise ships, tugboats, and cargo ships.

Who Qualifies as a Seaman Under the Jones Act?

The Jones Act does not protect all maritime workers. It only protects seamen. So, you must be a seaman to claim compensation under the Jones Act. A seaman is a person who is employed to work with a vessel or a fleet of vessels, whose duty helps the vessel accomplish its mission, and who spends at least 30% of their time working on the vessel or the fleet of vessels.

So, if you work with several shipping companies as an independent contractor, or you don’t spend a significant amount of time on the vessel, you may not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act.

Various maritime workers may qualify as seamen under the Jones Act. Offshore oil rig workers, engineers, painters, cooks, fishermen, and quartermasters may qualify as seamen. 

If you are unsure whether you are a seaman under the Jones Act, you should consult a Jones Act lawyer. They will look at your situation to determine if you qualify as a Jones Act seaman.

Does the Jones Act Protect Passengers on Cruise Ships?

No, the Jones Act only protects seamen. So, passengers injured on cruise ships can’t file their claims under the act. But they can explore other alternatives to recover compensation for their injuries.

How Does the Jones Act Protect Workers Injured on a Vessel?

The Jones Act gives injured seamen, or their representative if they are deceased, the right to bring a civil action with the right of trial by jury against their employer. If you’re a seaman injured on duty, you can file a negligence claim against your employer. During the trial, you can elect to have a jury trial, and if your case is successful, you may recover compensation for all the damages you suffered from your injury.

What Are the Damages You Can Recover in a Jones Act Claim?

Maritime workers are exposed to more occupational risk than many other U.S. workers. So, the law mandates employers to train their workers adequately and to provide a safe workplace. If they are negligent in their duty and you’re injured, you can file a Jones Act claim and recover economic and non-economic damages.

Economic damages cover fixed financial losses that you incurred because of your injuries. Some examples include:

  • Medical expenses, including the cost of medication
  • Cost of therapy and rehabilitation
  • Cost of medical equipment 
  • Cost of emergency transport, such as a helicopter flight to the hospital
  • Lost income, both past and future
  • Loss of earning capacity

You can also recover compensation for non-economic damages. Non-economic damages compensate you for psychological or emotional losses and suffering. These losses are subjective and not easily quantified. Examples of non-economic damages are:

The amount of money you can receive as compensation depends on the severity of your injuries. An offshore accident lawyer can help show the court the extent of your injuries and their impact on your life. This will help you receive adequate compensation for your injuries.


U.S. Department of Justice: Stewart vs Dutra Construction Company (03-814) 543 U.S. 481

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies

Morris & Dewett provides this information to the public for general education and interest. The firm does not represent clients in every topic discussed in answers to frequent questions. The information is curated and produced based on questions commonly asked or search terms commonly used. Every effort is made to provide accurate information. Do not make any decision solely based on the information provided, please seek relevant counsel for each topic area. Consult an attorney before making any legal decision, consult a doctor before making any medical decision, and consult a financial advisor before making any fiscal decision. Information provided is not legal advice. If you have any legal needs, please do not hesitate to contact us. We are pleased to assist you.

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