What Is a Jones Act Vessel?
The answer to this question changed in 2005. At that time, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the definition of a vessel to include every description of watercraft or artificial structure capable of being used for transportation on water. As such, the term vessel is no longer restricted to conventional watercraft such as ships, barges, tugs, and special purpose vessels such as jack-up and semi-submersible drilling rigs and other mobile offshore drilling units. The term vessel has been expanded to include unpowered floating structures such as dredges and pontoon rafts.
Many people have questions about the Jones Act status of oil rigs, dredges, and MODU, to name a few. If there is question as to whether or not a vessel classifies as a Jones Act vessel, it would be best to consult a seasoned maritime attorney.
Jones Act vessels must be registered in the U.S. Our laws require that crewmembers be American citizens or legal aliens. Cabotage laws, what the Jones Act falls under, requires also that the ships must be built and owned by the United States in order to qualify as a Jones Act vessel. They must all be registered under the American flag.
US Code, Title 1, Chapter 1 states that a vessel is "every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water."
The Case That Defined Jones Act Vessels: Stewart v. Dutra
The 2005 Supreme Court decision that clarified the definition of a Jones Act vessel occurred in Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co. (03-814) 543 U.S. 481. During the case, a worker (Stewart) injured while working on a large dredge owned by Dutra Construction Company tried to use the Jones Act to receive compensation for his injuries. At trial, a court concluded that the dredge did not qualify for the Jones Act because its main purpose was dredging rather than transportation.
When Stewart v. Dutra made it to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States sided with the worker. It decided that a Jones Act vessel isn’t one that is focused on transportation. Instead, vessels are those that are capable of transportation.
According to this definition, since the dredge needed to move to fulfill its purpose, it was a Jones Act vessel. In other words, those who hid behind a strict definition of a Jones Act vessel were no longer able to escape accountability because of this important Supreme Court decision.
To learn more about this law and how it applies to you, call our Jones Act attorneys at (888) 493-1629. We can help.