Enacted in 1920 (46 U.S.C.A. § 688) the Jones Act provides a remedy to sailors for injuries or death resulting from the NEGLIGENCE of an owner, a master, or a fellow sailor of a vessel. The federal Jones Act defines the legal rights of seamen who are injured or killed in the course of maritime service. It entitles them, or their survivors, to sue their employer in the event that their fellow workers or shipmasters are negligent (unreasonably careless), and to receive a trial by jury. Prior to the law's passage in 1920, sailors did not enjoy these rights, largely because of antiquated legal concepts and court opinions that tended to protect employers. A milestone in liability law, the Jones Act was intended to demolish such barriers in recognition of the special risks taken by sailors. Interpreting the law has been a long and difficult challenge for the federal courts, which have exclusive jurisdiction over Jones Act claims. The crux of the problem is the Jones Act's failure to define the term seaman, which courts have generally, but not always, construed to mean "a shipmaster or crew member."
Until the early twentieth century, the rights of sailors were limited. If a sailor was injured through the negligence of another sailor or the master of the ship, the injured party could not hope to win a suit against the employer. Nor could survivors of a sailor who died in the line of service win such a suit. Under general maritime law, sailors were entitled to "maintenance and cure"—a form of contractual compensation that provided a living allowance for food, lodging, and medical expenses. Only when a ship was proved to be unseaworthy could sailors recover damages from their employer.
The U.S. Supreme Court emphasized these limitations in 1903 in The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158, 23 S. Ct. 483, 47 L. Ed. 760. In that case the Court ruled that the owner of a ship was not responsible for a sailor's injuries simply because those injuries were caused by the negligent order of the ship's master. The decision had its roots in a common-law doctrine known as the FELLOW-SERVANT RULE. This now outdated concept shifted blame partly, and sometimes entirely, from employers to fellow workers. If sued because a worker was injured on the job, employers could avert liability by blaming the accident on the negligence of fellow employees. In Osceola the Court based its reasoning on a socalled fellow-seaman doctrine, thus curtailing the legal remedies available to an injured sailor.
Several historical developments motivated Congress to give sailors greater legal rights. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 heightened public awareness of the perils of service at sea, and it was soon followed by concerns about merchant marines at the onset of WORLD WAR I. In 1915 Congress enacted safety requirements for vessels through the Act to Promote the Welfare of American Seamen in the Merchant Marine of the United States (Act of March 4, 1915, ch. 153, 38 Stat. 1164). This act overruled the Supreme Court's decision in Osceola, explicitly stating that the fellow-seaman doctrine could not be used as a defense. But the law had little force. In 1918 the Court ruled that Congress had failed to provide a remedy for negligent acts, and therefore allowed a lower court's dismissal of a sailor's negligence suit to stand (Chelentis v. Luckenbach Steamship Co., 247 U.S. 372, 38 S. Ct. 501, 62 L. Ed. 1171). Federal lawmakers viewed the decision as undermining their will.
Two years later Congress responded by passing the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (46 App. U.S.C.A. § 861 et seq.), section 33 of which has come to be known as the Jones Act. Lawmakers defined the rights of sailors to sue in explicit language:
Any seaman who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment may, at his election, maintain an action for damages at law, with the right of trial by jury…. and in case of the death of any seaman as a result of any such personal injury the PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE of such seaman may maintain an action for damages at law with the right of trial by jury.
Though Congress had eliminated the barriers that the Supreme Court had erected, a key question remained: who qualified as a seaman? In 1927 Congress provided a partial answer through the passage of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHCA) (33 U.S.C.A. § 901 et seq.). The LHCA provided WORKERS' COMPENSATION benefits to dockhands, who by that time had replaced sailors in the tasks of loading and unloading ships. But the LHCA specifically excluded any crew member of a vessel from its coverage; thus, by extension, sailors were not eligible for the benefits afforded dockworkers.
Because Congress did not see a need in 1920 to define seaman, it remained ambiguous who qualified to bring a suit under the Jones Act. Nevertheless, the courts had little trouble deciding until 1940, when the Supreme Court ruled that a crew member was not a seaman if his duties did not pertain to navigation (South Chicago Coal & Dock Co. v. Bassett, 309 U.S. 251, 60 S. Ct. 544, 84 L. Ed. 732). Yet, over the next several decades, some courts liberally construed both who constituted a sailor and what constituted a vessel. More confusion followed as a result of the Supreme Court's 1955 decision in Gianfala v. Texas Co., 350 U.S. 879, 76 S. Ct. 141, 100 L. Ed. 775, which reinstated the district court's ruling that the determination of a sailor's status belonged to the jury. The definition of seaman came to include workers on dredges and floating oil drilling platforms. Still, no precise test existed, and the result was an explosion of Jones Act litigation. Between 1975 and 1985, nearly one hundred thousand Jones Act suits were filed in southern states.
During the 1980s critics of the Jones Act called for reform. They asked Congress to limit the act's scope, and the Supreme Court to define whom the act covered. Although Congress did not act, the Court returned a partial answer in 1995 in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 115 S. Ct. 2172, 132 L. Ed. 2d 314. The decision established two elements that must be met by a plaintiff in order for the plaintiff to qualify as a sailor: the worker's duties "must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission," and the worker "must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or an identifiable group of vessels) that is substantial in both its duration and its nature." One key result of the decision was that sailors could now sue under the Jones Act even if their work required going ashore. But scholars did not believe Chandris was a conclusive ruling on all matters of interpretation in the law.