Navigating the Seas of Justice: Understanding the Laws that Protect Merchant Mariners and Maritime Workers

The world of maritime work is as vast and complex as the oceans these workers navigate. From merchant mariners to offshore oil rig workers, these individuals face unique challenges and risks. It’s crucial, therefore, to understand the legal frameworks that exist to protect them and how maritime lawyers (such as ourselves at Herd Law Firm!) play a pivotal role in upholding their rights.

The Unique Legal Landscape of the Sea

Maritime work does not generally fit neatly into standard labor laws. Instead, it falls under a specialized area of law known as maritime or admiralty law. This legal field governs nautical issues and private maritime disputes, covering a wide array of matters from shipping to offenses occurring on open water.

Here are some key laws protecting maritime workers:

  1. The Jones Act (Merchant Marine Act of 1920): A vitally important cornerstone of maritime law, the Jones Act enables merchant mariners to seek compensation from their employers in case of injury or illness caused by negligence while on the job. Unlike workers’ compensation, which limits the type of recovery, the Jones Act allows for broader compensation, including pain and suffering.

However, it is important to note not everyone who works on a ship can file a lawsuit under maritime law. ‌Under the Jones Act, only “seamen” are covered. This means that if you’re a shipbuilder or dock worker, you aren’t covered by the Jones Act. Instead, you need to make injury claims under The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.‌

Generally speaking, you are deemed a seaman according to the Jones Act if you work on a ship or boat as a crew member or captain. ‌

Often, seamen may work unpredictable schedules, such as three months on and three months off, but as long as you spend at least 30 percent of the time you work for your employer as a crew member or captain on a boat or ship, you will be considered a seaman under this Act.

  1. The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA): This Act provides workers’ compensation to specific categories of maritime employees, including longshore workers, harbor workers, ship repairers, and shipbuilders. It covers medical care, disability payments, and rehabilitation for work-related injuries and occupational diseases.
  2. The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA): Enacted in 1920, DOHSA provides compensation to the families of maritime workers who die due to accidents or wrongful acts that occur on the “high seas”, defined as more than three nautical miles from the shore of any U.S. state.
  3. The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC): An international standard, MLC ensures comprehensive rights and protection at work for the world’s more than 1.5 million seafarers. It addresses a wide range of matters, including employment terms, accommodations, recreational facilities, food and catering, health protection, medical care, welfare, and social security protection.

The Role of a Maritime Lawyer

A maritime lawyer specializes in the laws pertaining to nautical issues and maritime activities. These legal professionals are crucial for several reasons:

  • Expert Navigation of Maritime Laws: Maritime lawyers possess specialized knowledge to navigate the complex legal waters, ensuring that maritime workers receive the compensation and justice they deserve.
  • Representation in Court: If a case goes to trial, a maritime lawyer can represent maritime workers effectively, understanding the intricacies of maritime law that a general practice lawyer may not.
  • Legal Advice and Support: They provide essential advice on rights and obligations under maritime law and assist in dealing with regulatory bodies.
  • Negotiation with Employers and Insurers: These lawyers are adept at negotiating with employers, vessel owners and operators, and their insurance companies to secure fair settlements for maritime workers.

You have the option of filing a maritime lawsuit at a federal or state court in the state where:

  • the employer lives or has its headquarters, or
  • where the accident happened.

Jones Act and other maritime lawsuits are specialized and sometimes complex, so you should talk to an experienced maritime lawyer who can advise you and walk you through the process.

The sea may be unpredictable, but the laws protecting those who work on it shouldn’t be. For merchant mariners and maritime workers, understanding these laws and seeking the guidance of a skilled maritime lawyer can be the difference between being left adrift and navigating successfully to safe harbor. As the maritime industry continues to evolve, so too will the laws that protect its most valuable asset: the workers who brave the high seas.

We at the Herd Law Firm are proud to fight for maritime workers and passengers in all types of personal injury claims. As Houston maritime attorneys, we never waver in our commitment to help these maritime workers and their families when they are injured.


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If you or someone that you know has contracted COVID-19 while on board a cruise ship, you may be entitled to compensation. If so, call the law offices of the Herd Law Firm, PLLC for a risk-free evaluation of your potential case.

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