The Jones Act

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, one of three federal laws commonly referred to as the Jones Act, is a United States Federal statute that regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. It is a cabotage law which also contains provisions regarding seamen’s rights.

The Jones Act was written to help injured seamen. Additionally, the Jones Act ensures that the U.S. keeps and maintains a fleet of ships staffed by U.S. crews and owned by U.S. companies.

Prior to the passing of the Jones Act in 1920 there were no written laws (statues) by Congress to ensure that injured U.S. seamen would be provided for if they were injured. For many years, injured seamen relied upon Maritime Law for their recovery. Maritime law or admiralty law is a mixture of common law, traditions and practices adopted by ancient seafaring nations, and incorporated into the American legal system over time.

The cabotage provisions restrict the carriage of goods or passengers between United States ports to U.S. built and flagged vessels. In addition, at least 75 percent of the crewmembers must be U.S. citizens. Moreover foreign repair work of U.S.-flagged vessels’ hull and superstructure is limited to 10 percent foreign-built steel weight. This restriction largely prevents American shipowners from refurbishing their ships at overseas shipyards.

Seamen’s Rights
The U.S. Congress adopted the Merchant Marine Act in 1920, formerly 46 U.S.C. § 688 and codified on October 6, 2006 as 46 U.S.C. § 30104. The Act formalized the rights of seaman which have been recognized for centuries.

“From the very beginning of American civilization, courts have protected seaman whom the courts have described as ‘unprotected and in need of counsel; because they are thoughtless and require indulgence; because they are credulous and complying; and are easily overreached. They are emphatically the wards of admiralty.'” Capitol Hill Hearing Testimony, Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee; Testimony by John Hickley, attorney at law. Congressional Quarterly. March 27, 2007.

It allows injured sailors to obtain damages from their employers for the negligence of the shipowner, the captain, or fellow members of the crew. It operates simply by extending similar legislation already in place that allowed for recoveries by railroad workers and providing that this legislation also applies to sailors. Its operative provision is found at 46 U.S.C. § 688(a), which provides:

“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…”

This allows U.S. seamen to bring actions against ship owners based on claims of unseaworthiness or negligence. These are rights not afforded by common international maritime law.

The United States Supreme Court, in the case of Chandris, Inc., v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 115 S.Ct. 2172 (1995), has set a benchmark for determining the status of any employee as a “Jones Act seaman.” Any worker who spends less than 30 percent of his time in the service of a vessel on navigable waters is presumed not to be a seaman under the Jones Act. An action under the Act may be brought either in a U.S. federal court or in a state court. The seaman/Plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial, a right which is not afforded in maritime law absent a statute authorizing it.

Critics note that the legislation results in costs for moving cargoes between U.S. ports that are far higher than if such restrictions did not apply. In essence, they argue, the act is protectionism.

Opponents contend that the U.S. shipbuilding industry has suffered as a result. Ship operators are given an incentive to maintain veteran U.S.-built vessels rather than replace them with new tonnage. In addition, U.S. shipyards have adapted to building only those ships that are needed by operators, with price tags that reflect their all-American workforces. Subsequently, the claim is that U.S. shipbuilders have long since priced themselves out of the international market for merchant ships.

A 2001 U.S. Department of Commerce Study study indicates that U.S. shipyards built only 1 percent of the world’s large commercial ships. Ships are virtually never ordered in U.S. shipyards unless they are for use in U.S. Shipping. The report concluded that the lack of United States competitiveness stemmed from foreign subsidies, unfair trade practices, and lack of U.S. productivity.

Moreover, critics point to the lack of a U.S.-flagged international shipping fleet. They claim that it makes it economically impossible for U.S.-flagged, -built, and -crewed ships to compete internationally with vessels built and registered in other nations with crews willing to work for wages that are a fraction of what their U.S. counterparts earn.

“The Shipping Act steals jobs from American seamen who could be working on coastwise freighters and feeders.” Rob Quartel, president of the Reform Coalition.

Supporters of the Shipping Act maintain that the legislation is of strategic economic and wartime interest to the United States. The act, they say, protects the nation’s sealift capability and its ability to produce commercial ships. In addition, the act is seen as a vital factor in helping maintain a viable workforce of trained merchant mariners for commerce and national emergencies. Supporters say that it also protects seafarers from deplorable living and working conditions often found on foreign-flagged ships.

Some proponents make the case that allowing foreign-flagged ships to engage in commerce in American domestic sea lanes would be like letting a foreign automaker establish a plant in the U.S. which doesn’t have to pay U.S. wages, taxes, or meet national safety or environmental standards.

“If someone were to propose that we let foreign workers compete with GM workers in the U.S., they would be laughed at.” Arthur J. Volkle, associate general counsel, MARITRANS Inc.; a Philadelphia-based tug and barge operator.

Effective October 6, 2006

New Jones Act laws were passed by the United States Congress and signed by President George W. Bush on October 6, 2006. The old Jones Act 42 U.S.C. was thereby re-codified by The Office of the Law Revision Counsel.

The changes were a result of positive law codification which is the process of preparing and enacting, one title at a time, a revision and restatement of the general and permanent laws of the United States.

The latest version of the Merchant Marine Act (Jones Act) can be accessed here

sources: WikipediaShipGuide.com1800JonesAct


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