Navigating the differences in determining Jones Act and Longshore status for defending claims in maritime litigation

At first glance, the waters can be murky when wading through a determination of a maritime employee’s status as a Jones Act seaman or a longshoreman.  

The determination of whether an individual is a Jones Act seaman or a longshoreman, which determination is based on the individual's job duties, the nature of their work, and the specific circumstances under which the individual is employed, is critically important. The Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688, and the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (“LHWCA”), 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq., each provide different legal protections and remedies for workers who are injured on the job.

To be considered a Jones Act seaman, an individual must be working on a vessel that is engaged in navigation, or on an offshore drilling platform. Also, the individual must have a connection to the vessel or platform that is substantial in terms of both duration and nature. For example, an individual who spends a significant amount of time working on a vessel or platform and whose work is essential to the vessel's or platform's function would likely be considered a Jones Act seaman.

Under the Jones Act, a seaman injured on the job may be able to recover damages for their injuries, which damages may include:

  • Medical expenses: Seamen are entitled to recover the cost of medical treatment related to their injuries, including hospital stays, surgeries, prescription medications, and rehabilitation.
  • Lost wages: Seamen may be able to recover the wages they lost as a result of their injuries, including any overtime pay or bonuses that they would have earned had they not been injured.
  • Maintenance and cure: Seamen are entitled to receive maintenance (a daily living allowance) and cure (medical treatment) while they are unable to work due to their injuries.
  • Pain and suffering: Seamen may be able to recover damages for the physical pain and emotional suffering they experienced as a result of their injuries.
  • Disfigurement and disability: Seamen may be able to recover damages for any permanent disfigurement or disability that resulted from their injuries.

A longshoreman, on the other hand, is an individual who is employed in the loading and unloading of vessels. A longshoreman does not have a connection to a specific vessel or a specific offshore drilling platform. Typically, a longshoreman is employed by a stevedoring company, which company contracts with vessel owners or operators to handle the loading and unloading of cargo.

In contrast to the Jones Act, under the LHWCA, a longshoreman injured on the job may only be entitled to receive a more limited type of benefits, which include:

  • Medical benefits: Longshoremen are entitled to receive medical treatment for their injuries, including hospital stays, surgeries, prescription medications, and rehabilitation.
  • Disability benefits: Longshoremen who are unable to work due to their injuries may be entitled to receive disability benefits to compensate them for their lost wages.
  • Death benefits: If a longshoreman is killed on the job, their surviving family members may be entitled to receive death benefits, including compensation for funeral and burial expenses.

There are several common causes for misclassification of an employee's status under the Jones Act and the LHWCA, including confusion about the respective definitions of “seaman” and “longshoreman” found in the statutes. It is critically important to understand the meaning of each and the duties and responsibilities inherent in each. 

Misunderstanding of the employee’s job duties is another common pitfall. Under the Jones Act or the LHWCA, an employee’s status may depend on the specific duties they perform and the nature of their work. If an employee's job duties are not clearly defined or are not accurately classified, it can lead to misclassification of their status. It is imperative to remember that an employee's status may change over time if their job duties or working conditions change significantly. When that occurs, the failure to update an employee’s status to reflect the change can result in misclassification. 

Misclassification of an employee's status can have significant consequences for the valuation and defense of a claim. Therefore, a proper determination at the outset of a claim is essential for proper handling.