The Jones Act was an important piece of United States legislation passed in 1920. It supported the American Merchant Marine, while also providing additional protections for sailors and ship's crew. Several clauses in the act set a precedent, since they went above and beyond similar protective clauses under international maritime law. This law and the benefits it provides are extremely complex, and mariners who are eligible for claims under it should always consult an experienced attorney.
Officially titled the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, this legislation came to be best known for Senator Wesley Jones, who sponsored it. The act was passed in response to concerns about the health of the Merchant Marine, and to establish protections for sailors. Prior to its passage, sailors who were injured on the job had few options for recovering damages or getting assistance; recognizing the inherent danger of working at sea and the value of trained seamen, the law established a system of benefits for sailors.
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Two parts of the Jones Act are of particular historical importance. The first heavily promoted American built, owned, and staffed ships. This was accomplished by restricting shipping and passenger trade within the United States to American owned or American flagged ships, and stipulated that 75% of a ship's crew must consist of American citizens. In addition, the use of foreign parts and labor in ship construction and repair was also heavily restricted. This section of the act was intended to create a strong, well staffed Merchant Marine that could ably serve the United States during both peace and war.
The second important section of the act created benefits for sailors that are extremely far reaching. Any sailor who is injured at sea is entitled to maintenance and cure, meaning that the sailor's employer must pay him or her a daily stipend and provide medical care to treat the injury. In addition, sailors can also sue for damages if their injuries were caused by negligence on the part of the ship's owners or other crew members, or if they sailed on unseaworthy vessels. These damages include death benefits, in the event that a sailor is killed on the job.
Anyone who spends at least 30% of his or her time in active service on a Merchant Marine vessel can qualify for Jones Act benefits. This includes all staff on board ship, from the captain on down. The benefits provided by the law can be significantly higher than benefits for workers on land, if a skilled attorney is involved.