1. Home
  2.  » 
  3. Blog
  4.  » ​Why Is the Jones Act Important to Oil Workers?

​Why Is the Jones Act Important to Oil Workers?

by | Aug 2, 2022 | Blog, Oilfield Accidents, Workplace Accidents | 0 comments

The usual rule in a workplace injury is that you cannot sue your employer in a negligence case because they have provided you with workers’ compensation insurance. While this system does have its benefits because injured employees do not have to prove negligence, and it is much easier to get financial compensation, workers’ compensation claims pay less in compensation.

The good news for injured oil workers is that a particular law allows them to file a lawsuit against their employer when they have suffered an injury on the job. First, they must prove that their employer was negligent.

The Jones Act Protects Workers out at Sea

​Why Is the Jones Act Important to Oil Workers?Congress passed the Jones Act in 1920 to ensure the competitiveness of the American maritime and shipping industries. In addition to many provisions that protect American shipping companies, a crucial part of the statute helps injured workers. Before the passage of the law, there were difficulties attracting people to work on seagoing vessels because of the danger associated with these jobs.

The Jones Act protections intended to entice people to take the risk of working on one of these ships. Over time, as the maritime industry evolved, courts interpreted some of the clauses of the statute.

Oil Workers Need Protection from a Dangerous Job

Oil rig employees have dangerous jobs.

Here are some of the dangers that they face on the job:

  • Hazardous weather conditions on the rig
  • Slippery and blocked decks and passageways
  • Outdated or malfunctioning equipment causing work accidents
  • Transportation accidents coming to and from the rig (These are the most frequent injury-causing event for offshore workers.)
  • Fires and explosions on the rig

What makes these injuries worse is limited access to emergency medical care on the rig. Injured workers may need evacuation first before they can get the necessary care. Serious injuries can worsen because of the lack of immediate medical treatment.

Oil Rig Employers Have Legal Obligations to Their Employees

The core principle of the Jones Act is as follows: The employer must provide the employee with a reasonably safe place to work and keep the vessel in seaworthy condition. The employer must use ordinary care under the circumstances to maintain the vessel. If not, the employer can be held legally responsible in a lawsuit.

The Jones Act applies when the worker is at sea. For this law, the “sea” can be anywhere that is not on land. Even some land-based workers can qualify for the protection of the Jones Act, depending on where they were when the injury happened. There are very complex rules, and the legal interpretations always seem to change.

Oil Rigs Are Considered a Vessel Under the Jones Act

Although the Jones Act dates to 1920, it was only in the past two decades that the Supreme Court clarified what the Jones Act considers a vessel. In a seminal case, the Court decided that an oil rig can meet this legal definition for purposes of a Jones Act claim. Previously, the legal interpretation might have excluded something attached to the ocean floor that did not move. Now, oil rig workers have the protections of this key statute and can receive full compensation when their employer is at fault for their injury.

However, the Jones Act may not always apply. Everything depends on where you spend most of your working time, what role you play and where you were when the injury occurred.

Even if the Jones Act does not apply, another law may entitle you to financial compensation for your medical bills and some replacement income. Further, even if the employer did not cause the maritime injury, you can still qualify for financial compensation for your injuries.

Whether the Jones Act Applies Is Always Fact Specific

Your attorney will dig deeper into the facts of your case to figure out which law applies. Even if the Jones Act does not apply, you will still be entitled to some compensation that will pay for your medical bills and some of your lost wages.

Other federal laws can protect you, including:

These laws have their own workers’ compensation programs that function similarly to those you will find at the state level. You will not need to prove any fault to qualify for these benefits. However, you will also not receive the same compensation you will get if you win a Jones Act lawsuit.

Oil workers may even qualify for the Jones Act if they do not work full-time on the vessel. The Jones Act gives a numerical test about when someone can qualify as a seaman and get the law’s protections.

To meet the Jones Act test, one must:

  • Have at least 30 percent of their work take place on board the vessel
  • Have duties that directly contribute to the mission or operation of the vessel in navigation, whether moving or at anchor
  • Have duties that require substantial time and effort for the betterment of the mission

If the injured worker meets all three parts of the test, they become a seaman and can sue their employer for negligence. Thus, employees who maintain and repair different oil rigs can qualify as seamen, even if they do not directly work in oil extraction. They will likely meet all three of the prongs of the test based on the rig. Even some land-based workers may qualify for Jones Act coverage.

The Law That Applies Depends on Where the Rig Stands

The Jones Act will apply when an oil rig worker works in waters off a state’s coast. If the rig is on the Outer Continental Shelf, a particular statute applies, and the injured worker may be unable to file a personal injury lawsuit.

If the Jones Act applies, it becomes your exclusive way of obtaining compensation for workplace injuries. Employers will do everything they can to argue that the Act does not apply because it will cost them more money. They will closely review the facts of your employment and injury to argue that a different law controls, one that will not see them held liable for their negligence.

Negligence in a Jones Act Case

When the Jones Act does govern your case, your workplace injury lawsuit will proceed like any other personal injury case. You will need to gather evidence that shows that your employer was negligent in your injury. Negligence has the same meaning that it does in any personal injury lawsuit. Here, it means that your employer acted in a way that failed to live up to their duty of care.

Here are some examples of things that the court can consider as negligence in a Jones Act lawsuit:

  • Failure to provide a deck or working surface that is free of fall hazards
  • Failure to outfit an employee with the proper personal protective equipment
  • Failure to properly train workers for their job duties
  • Providing employees with equipment that does not properly work
  • Failure to supervise and enforce safe working methods among employees
  • Failure to ensure that there are proper operating procedures that further ensure employee safety

A Jones Act claim will present facts and evidence that show how the employer was negligent. One significant difference between a Jones Act lawsuit and a standard personal injury lawsuit is the lower level of causation required in a Jones Act case. All you need to do is show that the employer’s negligence was a factor in your injury instead of the primary cause.

You May Be Able to File a Lawsuit for an Unseaworthy Vessel

If the Jones Act does not apply to you, there may still be a way to sue the employer for negligence. In the maritime industry, the employer has a legal obligation to provide a seaworthy vessel.

Examples of an unseaworthy vessel will include:

  • A lack of proper safety equipment
  • Worn out or old equipment
  • Improperly designed equipment on the vessel

Even if the employer was not to blame for an oil worker’s injuries, the worker might still be entitled to some financial benefits. You can think of the Jones Act as providing the right to sue for negligence, plus some guaranteed benefits so long as an injury was work-related. Either way, you will not be without some benefits.

The Jones Act May Still Give You Other Compensation

If the Jones Act covers you, you are also entitled to maintenance and cure benefits that may give you even more peace of mind than you will get under the workers’ compensation system. In a worker’s compensation claim, you get a portion of your lost wages for a set period.

In maintenance and cure, you will receive:

  • Maintenance will pay for your living expenses, such as rent, food, electricity, and taxes. These payments will cover your household expenses, but they do not include things like your phone and internet payments.
  • Cure pays for the medical expenses associated with the injuries.

Your Compensation in a Jones Act Lawsuit

The core difference between a Jones Act claim and one for workers’ compensation type benefits is that your compensation can be far greater in a Jones Act case.

In a personal injury lawsuit, you may receive the following types of compensation:

  • Medical expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Emotional trauma
  • Permanent disfigurement

If your loved one died in an accident on an oil rig, your family can receive your damages in a wrongful death lawsuit. Wrongful death damages will be more than a family can get as part of a workers’ compensation death benefit.

The Jones Act allows you to receive more money. First, any workers’ compensation program restricts you to your living expenses or a portion of your earnings. Lost wages in a personal injury lawsuit pay you the full amount you might earn now and in the future, adjusting for raises that you may have earned based on your career path.

In addition, non-economic damages are often very valuable in a personal injury case. Depending on the severity of your injury, pain and suffering can be several multiples of your medical expenses. The ability to file a lawsuit can take a claim worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and potentially make it worth millions of dollars.

Your Employer Will Do Everything They Can to Defeat Your Claim

You can imagine that your employer’s attorneys will pull out all the stops to argue why you should not be entitled to the protections of the Jones Act. It will cost them far more money. From their perspective, they may want to use your case to establish a legal precedent that will keep the Jones Act from applying to future workers.

paula a wyatt attorney wyatt law firm san antonio

Attorney, Paula A. Wyatt

Either way, you need an attorney with deep experience in Jones Act cases and other forms of maritime law to protect you when your employer tries to fight back. Your employer has a far greater incentive to fight a Jones Act lawsuit than they will a workers’ compensation claim because their money is on the line.

An experienced attorney will review your case and let you know if they believe the Jones Act applies to your case and your legal options for financial compensation. Then, they will gather evidence to use to prove your claim. Evidence will vary from case to case and can be difficult to obtain. In some cases, your employer might conceal evidence of negligence to avoid liability in a Jones Act claim.

The sooner you contact a Jones Act attorney, the better. They can immediately begin gathering evidence and investigating what happened so you can provide support for your claim. They can issue a letter to your employer demanding the company preserve all useful evidence that can prove liability and help your case. Never wait to seek legal help.