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Jones Act

In 1920, the United States Congress passed the Jones Act to protect seamen injured while working at sea.  The Jones Act incorporates the provisions of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), and affords seaman the same protections and rights as railroad workers.  Specifically, the Jones Act allows seamen the ability to make claims and collect compensation from their employers for injuries or illnesses sustained while in service of a vessel on navigable waters.  Over the years, and due to the increase in offshore oil and gas production, the Jones Act has been expanded to cover not only traditional blue water seaman, but also brown water seamen who are injured while working on board inland tows, jack-up rigs, semi-submersible rigs, drill ships, and barges.

The Jones Act allows injured workers to seek monetary damages from their employer for pain and suffering, impairment of earning capacity (past and future), medical  expenses (past and future), and other costs that have resulted from negligence or unseaworthiness.  Additionally, the employer is obligated to pay an injured seaman maintenance and cure, and failure by the employer to do so can result in punitive damages. The phrase “maintenance and cure” is commonly misunderstood by injured seamen.  Maintenance refers to the daily cost of living an employer is required to pay a seaman who is unable to return to work due to an injury or illness sustained in the service of the vessel.  Cure refers to the employer’s obligation to pay the seaman’s reasonable and necessary medical expenses he/she has incurred as a result of the injury or illness.

The Jones Act differs significantly from other state workers’ compensation statutes.  Generally, most workers’ compensation statutes are restrictive and prohibit an injured worker from suing their employer and limit an injured worker’s recovery for the injury. However, the Jones Act gives certain protections to seamen by allowing an injured seaman to sue his/her employer for negligence and unseaworthiness.

Jones Act Status

The Jones Act applies to seamen injured while working in the service of a vessel.  Over time, the status of seamen has become more loosely defined.  However, an employee claiming seaman status must have (1) a substantial connection in duration and nature to the navigation of a vessel, or fleet of vessels; and (2) the employee must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.  To put it simply, the employee must be doing the ship’s work.

Aside from the general seamen description (Master, Mate, AB, etc.), others employed on board vessels and found to be Jones Act seamen, include:

  • A hairdresser aboard a cruise ship
  • A roustabout aboard an oil rig
  • A paint foreman aboard a vessel used in painting offshore oil platforms

The determination of seaman status, and whether your case falls within the Jones Act, is based on a case-by-case analysis.  Additionally, cases falling under the Jones Act are governed by a 3-year statute of limitations, rather than 2 years as typical for a negligence cause of action in most states.  If you have been injured while working on board a vessel, rig, barge, or other floating structure, or want to learn more about whether your case may fall under the Jones Act, contact Gilman & Allison, LLP for a free consultation and evaluation.

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