For an injured worker to make an offshore injury claim, they must qualify as a Jones Act seaman. The Jones Act—also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920—is a law that was created to protect the United States maritime industry. It protects offshore workers from negligence much like the laws that protect the well-being of onshore workers. Thanks to the Jones Act, an injured worker can hold a negligent employer or party accountable for the damages caused by an accident. Important, workers and the vessels they work on must meet requirements before they can make a Jones Act claim.
The Jones Act is vague about what is considered a vessel by the law. For years, some uncertainty existed regarding what a Jones Act vessel was. Common vessels like cargo ships, tugboats, cruise ships, barges, and more were easy to distinguish as Jones Act vessels since they fulfilled the law’s requirement of performing the transportation. Yet, uncertainty prevailed when a vessel’s primary duty was not transportation.
Stewart V. Dutra Defines Jones Act Vessels
A 2005 Supreme Court decision helped determine what a Jones Act vessel is. 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 damages. 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.
The Supreme Court defined a Jones Act vessel as the following:
"The word 'vessel' includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water."
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.
If you were injured on a dredging vessel, Arnold & Itkin LLP is ready to help. Call our dredge accident lawyers today for a free consultation of your case.