Oct 9, 2018

The Jones Act: Protecting U.S. Vessels and Seamen

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 is the federal statute that promotes, regulates and maintains maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. The Act, United States Code 46, Section 861 et seq., also known as the Jones Act, covers goods transported by water between U.S. ports, the types of vessels that can transport them, and the rights of seamen serving on them. Due to the many Jones Act questions that the Deutsch Kerrigan maritime team receives, we thought it would be helpful to give our clients and others a brief overview of this comprehensive maritime act and its consequences.

Basic Vessel Requirements

The Jones Act imposes the following four basic requirements on all vessels that carry goods between U.S. ports:

  1. The vessel must be owned by a U.S. company controlled by U.S. citizens with at least 75 percent U.S. ownership.
  2. At least 75 percent of its crew must be U.S. citizens.
  3. The vessel must be built or rebuilt in the United States.
  4. The vessel must be registered in the United States.

Vessel Types

Jones Act vessels generally fall into the following five categories:

  1. Cargo ships, including dry bulk carriers, dry cargo liners and tankers
  2. Barges
  3. Tugboats
  4. Fishing boats
  5. Cruise ships

Jones Act Seamen

The Jones Act extends Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) protections to seamen working on commercial and military vessels. To qualify as a Jones Act seaman, a person must spend a “significant amount of time,” generally considered to be 30 percent, working on a vessel “in navigation” at a job requiring him or her to “contribute to the overall mission of the vessel.”

Maintenance, Cure and Unearned Wages

An employer must pay an injured or ill seaman both maintenance and cure. “Maintenance” refers to his or her daily living expenses, while “cure” refers to his or her medical costs. However, when the seaman reaches a state of “maximum medical improvement,” the employer is not required to pay any additional medical expenses or maintenance.

In addition to maintenance and cure, an employer must pay an injured or ill seaman’s unearned wages, including overtime wages. The employment agreement or contract between the employer and the seaman determines the period of time during which such unearned wages must be paid. For example, if the employment period represents the length of a specific voyage, the employer can cease unearned wage payments once the voyage comes to an end.

Whenever you need help resolving a maritime issue or dispute, contact the maritime team at Deutsch Kerrigan. Our attorneys have been involved in Jones Act compliance and litigation in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast for over 60 years. We are ready to help you achieve your goals.

Walter P. Maestri by: Walter P. Maestri

Walter is a partner and head of Deutsch Kerrigan's Marine & Energy department. As a maritime attorney, Walter works with companies in the offshore fields representing those that have contracts with oil and gas interests in the Gulf of Mexico.