Jones Act, Admiralty Law and Workers’ Comp in the Oil Industry in Texas

offshore drilling, workplace accidents, Jones Act

Workers comp isn't the only option for seamen after a workplace accident

If you have been injured in an offshore drilling accident in Texas and are considering a legal claim against your employer, you will need information on the Jones Act.

The Jones Act is one of the most note-worthy admiralty laws, which generally cover the carrying of goods and people over water. The Act could have a significant impact on an offshore drilling claim because it offers protections for seamen injured in a workplace accident at sea.

The Act is actually a combination of three congressional laws, including the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, and was first introduced by Senator Wesley Jones from Washington State, according to the Transportation Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to maritime research education and promotion.

The law has been modified several times, most recently in 2006.

History of the Jones Act

Before the Jones Act, a sailor injured at sea had no ability to receive compensation for the injuries that he or she sustained. So admiralty laws in the United States began to mandate that employers of such individuals would be responsible for paying for the costs of medical treatment and living expenses for employees injured while performing maritime tasks.

The initial purpose of the Act was to protect merchant marines and to recognize their role as assisting in national defense, and to recognize the growth in foreign and domestic commerce.

Enjuris Tip: Most oil industry workers who spend time off-shore can qualify, but there are some rules that determine whether the Jones Act covers a particular worker.

Most oil industry workers who spend time off-shore can qualify, but there are some rules that determine whether the Jones Act covers a particular worker.

Many individuals injured in the oil drilling field in Texas choose to work with a Texas law firm that has a strong standing in admiralty law. Because this maritime-specific body of law is specialized and different than Texas state law, it is critical that lawyers are trained specifically in how to bring federal lawsuits.

Basics of the Jones Act

The Jones Act is one of the few areas of law that favors injured workers over employers.

Maritime occupations are often very dangerous, including offshore oil rigs. Employees risk electrocution, explosion, falls, drowning, fires, being struck by heavy objects, being crushed by heavy machinery and being exposed to toxic chemicals.

The Jones Act is one of the few areas of law that favors injured workers over employers. Tweet this

Under the Jones Act, a worker injured at sea on an oil rig, on a pier, at a shipbuilding facility or on a dock, may be entitled to relief.  It commonly applies to cases involving drillers, tanker men, workers in the oilfield industry, dredgers, workers on tugboats and others.

The Jones Act applies when a seaman is injured in the scope and course of employment while working on board a vessel upon a navigable waterway.

This Act applies when a seaman is injured in the scope and course of employment while working on board a vessel upon a navigable waterway. Each of these terms has very special meaning under the law, so it is often difficult to determine when this act applies, even though it has been in existence for nearly a century.

Definition of vessel

Another term that often requires close interpretation under the Jones Act is that of a "vessel." Historically this includes barges, dredges, drill ships, crew boats, supply boats and floaters.

However, as technology in the oil drilling industry has changed, courts have had to grapple with determining whether new devices are considered vessels, such as Tension Leg Platforms. A 2005 court ruling (Stewart v. Dutra Construction Company) found that a vessel was a watercraft that could be used as a means of transportation on water.

Navigable waterways

In order for the Jones Act to apply, the injured worker must be on navigable waterways. These include the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River and its respective tributaries also fall within this definition.

Compensation

Under the Jones Act, injured workers are entitled to maintenance and cure. Maintenance is considered the money that is required to supply room and board to the worker on the same basis as that was generally provided on board the vessel. This is a per-day payment and is typically a low figure.

Cure is the payment for necessary medical care that will return the seaman to a point of maximum medical improvement. Maintenance and cure are provided without regard to whom was at fault for the injuries or illness that the worker suffered.

Currently there is not a statutory obligation that compels the employer to provide cure like there is in workers' compensation cases. However, the Jones Act provides a mechanism for the seaman to obtain compensation since it allows an injured employee to sue an employer in state or federal court.

However, the Jones Act provides a mechanism for the seaman to obtain compensation since it allows an injured employee to sue an employer in state or federal court.

A case would be allowed if the employee can show that the vessel was unseaworthy, meaning that it was not fit for its intended purpose, and the employee suffered injuries as a result of the employer's negligence.

Differences between the Jones Act and Workers' Compensation

Under traditional workers' compensation laws, a person who is injured on the job may be entitled to medical care for their work-related injuries, approximately two-thirds of their average weekly wage while being treated and potentially a small monetary settlement.

An employee does not have to prove fault to be eligible for worker's compensation benefits. However, if the person is not able to return to the same level of work, he or she might lose a substantial amount of money over the course of his or her lifetime for which they will never receive compensation.

In contrast, under the Jones Act, if the injured worker can show that the employer's negligence or an unseaworthy condition caused his or her injuries, the worker may be entitled to compensation far greater than a workers' compensation claim would typically provide.

The standard for Jones Act cases is much lower than in civil personal injury claims.

To show that a vessel was not seaworthy, the injured worker has the burden of showing that his or her injuries were caused by a breach of warranty because of equipment that was not reasonably safe for its intended purpose.

If the injured worker can successfully make his or her claim, the worker may be able to receive compensation for the following:

  • Physical impairment
  • Physical disfigurement
  • Loss of past wages
  • Loss of future wages
  • Vocational rehabilitation
  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish

Individuals cannot usually sue their employers under workers' compensation laws.

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