The Jones Act, formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, provides that maritime workers on sea vessels can seek compensation for injuries acquired while at sea. This law clearly covers commercial fishermen, sailors, and cruise ship workers, but what about oil rig workers?
According to incident statistics from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), there were 2 fatalities and 164 injuries in the offshore oil and gas industry in 2021. In 2020, there were 6 fatalities and 160 injuries. However, these fatalities have been underreported, and getting a clear picture of offshore incidents has proven exceedingly difficult. According to the CDC, between 2003 and 2010, the oil and gas industry (both on land and offshore) in the U.S. bore a fatality rate that was alarmingly seven times higher than other industries. This statistic casts a dark shadow over the safety measures in place, specifically in the offshore oil rig sector, where 128 workers had fatal accidents during this period.
Offshore work is demanding and can be dangerous when equipment is improperly maintained, or rig operators are negligent in upholding safety standards. The question then arises: What legal options do injured offshore workers and their families have to hold at-fault parties accountable?
Understanding the Jones Act
Maritime commerce and the rights of seamen have always been crucial subjects in U.S. law, tracing back to the earliest days of the nation. Seafarers faced dangerous conditions, and historically there were efforts to ensure their protection. The concept of a sailor having a right to seek compensation for injuries can be found in legislation and legal precedent well before the 20th century.
The First World War highlighted the U.S.’s dependence on foreign shipping. The country was caught off-guard by the lack of domestic vessels available to serve in the war, prompting a reevaluation of its maritime policies. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 was enacted partly in response to this vulnerability.
The Jones Act was designed to accomplish several things:
- Promote a robust U.S. Merchant Marine: The Act sought to ensure that the country would have a fleet of commercial and military ships available in times of need.
- Protect U.S. commercial interests: It restricted domestic shipping (transportation of goods between U.S. ports) to American-built, -owned, -crewed, and -flagged vessels. This ensured that U.S. commerce would be carried out predominantly by U.S. ships, bolstering domestic shipbuilding and maritime employment.
- Protect maritime workers: This is the most well-known aspect of the Jones Act. It allows seamen who are injured on the job to sue their employers for personal injury damages, a right not granted to most other workers. The Act recognized the unique dangers of maritime work and aimed to provide a robust legal remedy for injured sailors. This protection extends to most offshore oil and gas workers.
The Jones Act & Oil Rig Workers
The eligibility for compensation under the Jones Act for oil rig workers hinges on the nature of the rig they are deployed on. In cases where the rig is mobile, such as a jack-up rig, the Jones Act often applies. The reason is that these movable structures qualify as sea-going vessels under legal interpretations.
The defining clause to qualify a worker as a "seaman" under the Jones Act stipulates that the individual must dedicate more than 30% of their working time in service to a vessel on navigable waters. The vast majority of rig workers meet this criterion. They not only work extensive hours but all aspects of their job, whether it's drilling or maintenance, contribute to the operation of the vessel.
When an offshore worker qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act, they may seek compensation for any injuries resulting from the negligence of their employers. They may be entitled to financial compensation for medical care, lost earnings, loss of future earnings, ongoing medical costs, and pain and suffering.
The following are examples of situations where an offshore worker may have a Jones Act case:
- Slip and Fall: If an employer fails to maintain a clean, safe deck, and a worker slips on oil, water, or other substance, resulting in injury.
- Faulty or Inadequate Equipment: Injuries caused by malfunctioning or poorly maintained equipment, tools, or machinery.
- Failure to Train: If a worker is injured because they were not properly trained to handle a particular piece of equipment or procedure.
- Inadequate Crew: If an employer does not have enough crew members to safely operate a vessel or rig, and a worker is injured as a result.
- Assaults: Physical attacks or altercations between crew members can result in injuries for which the employer may be held responsible, especially if they knew or should have known about the dangerous propensity of an employee.
- Exposure to Harmful Substances: Illness or injury resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals or hazardous conditions without proper protective equipment.
- Heavy Lifting: Back or other musculoskeletal injuries from lifting heavy objects without proper equipment or assistance.
- Unsafe Vessel Conditions: Injuries caused by structural defects or unsafe conditions of the vessel itself, constituting "unseaworthiness."
- Man Overboard Incidents: If an offshore worker goes overboard as a result of hazardous conditions on a rig or is not rescued in time because of improper or inadequate man overboard procedures and training.
- Explosions and Fires: Injuries resulting from an explosion or fire on a vessel or offshore rig, especially if caused by failure to maintain equipment or enforce safety protocols.
The validity of a Jones Act case will depend on the nature of the incident, its cause, the type of platform or rig, and whether the offshore worker is considered a seaman.
What About Workers on Fixed Platforms?
Offshore workers on fixed platforms in the U.S. are affected by a combination of the Jones Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA). Each piece of legislation has its scope and provisions, which might apply differently based on specific circumstances.
Here's an overview of how both might affect offshore workers on fixed platforms:
- Definition of Seaman: The Jones Act protects seamen, which means workers who are more or less permanently connected to a vessel and contribute to its function or mission. Fixed platforms, being stationary and attached to the ocean floor, are generally not considered vessels. Therefore, workers on fixed platforms may not qualify as seamen under the Jones Act.
- Transitory Situations: However, there are exceptions. If an offshore worker is injured while being transported to or from a fixed platform on a vessel, or while working on a vessel near a fixed platform, the Jones Act might apply, assuming the worker can establish seaman status.
- Jurisdictional Extension: The OCSLA extends U.S. federal law, including certain aspects of state law, to the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). This encompasses fixed platforms used for mineral exploration, development, and production on the OCS. That includes oil and gas operations.
- Workers' Compensation: The OCSLA provides that if a worker is injured or dies on a fixed platform on the OCS, they or their beneficiaries are typically entitled to benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA). This compensates for medical care, rehabilitation, and lost wages.
- Applicability of State Law: Under OCSLA, the laws of the adjacent state (the state closest to the fixed platform) can be applied as surrogate federal law on the OCS, provided they are "applicable and not inconsistent" with existing federal laws. This is significant for workers because it can grant them rights and protections derived from state laws.
Offshore Workers Deserve Legal Protection & Recourse
While the Jones Act offers a safety net for many maritime workers, its implications differ based on the nature of the vessel and the role of the worker. For those in this sector, understanding their rights under the respective Acts is paramount to ensure they receive the protection and compensation they deserve.