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Jones Act Explained

If your work takes you on onto the ocean, it's critical that you understand your legal rights to compensation should you be injured while on the job. The federal Merchant Marine Act of 1920, more commonly known as the Jones Act, was enacted to protect our nation's working seamen and their families from the consequences of negligent actions and unsafe or not seaworthy conditions.

Among other purposes, the Jones Act:

  • Regulates maritime commerce in US waters and between US ports;
  • Requires that all goods transported by water between US ports be carried on United States-flagged and constructed ships owned by US citizens, and crewed by permanent-resident US citizens;
  • Allows for compensation when a sailor is killed or injured while carrying out his or her job duties, particularly in cases wherein a ship is deemed not seaworthy;
  • Allows for compensation when the negligence of a ship's master, owner or another sailor causes injury or death, awarded to the sailor or surviving family members;
  • Gives maritime workers the right for their lawsuits to be heard through a jury trial.

The Jones Act is named for Senator Wesley Jones (R-WA) who introduced it in its original form back in 192. But the law's roots go back to America's early days. In 1789, the First Congress enacted Chapter XI, “An Act for Registering and Clearing Vessels, Regulating the Coasting Trade, and for other purposes,” which limited domestic trades to American ships meeting certain requirements. That statute, along with later legislation enacted for the protection of railway workers, laid the groundwork for the Jones Act, which reads:

“Any sailor 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 to trial by jury, and in such action all statutes of the United States modifying or extending the common-law right or remedy in cases of personal injury to railway employees shall apply…”