Enacted in 1920 (46 U.S.C.A. § 688) the Jones Act provides a remedy to sailors for injuries or death resulting from the NEGLIGENCE of an owner, a master, or a fellow sailor of a vessel. The federal Jones Act defines the legal rights of seamen who are injured or killed in the course of maritime service. It entitles them, or their survivors, to sue their employer in the event that their fellow workers or shipmasters are negligent (unreasonably careless), and to receive a trial by jury. Prior to the law's passage in 1920, sailors did not enjoy these rights, largely because of antiquated legal concepts and court opinions that tended to protect employers. A milestone in liability law, the Jones Act was intended to demolish such barriers in recognition of the special risks taken by sailors. Interpreting the law has been a long and difficult challenge for the federal courts, which have exclusive jurisdiction over Jones Act claims. The crux of the problem is the Jones Act's failure to define the term seaman, which courts have generally, but not always, construed to mean "a shipmaster or crew member."
Until the early twentieth century, the rights of sailors were limited. If a sailor was injured through the negligence of another sailor or the master of the ship, the injured party could not hope to win a suit against the employer. Nor could survivors of a sailor who died in the line of service win such a suit. Under general maritime law, sailors were entitled to "maintenance and cure"?a form of contractual compensation that provided a living allowance for food, lodging, and medical expenses. Only when a ship was proved to be unseaworthy could sailors recover damages from their employer.
The U.S. Supreme Court emphasized these limitations in 1903 in The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158,
23 S. Ct. 483, 47 L. Ed. 760. In that case the Court ruled that the owner of a ship was not responsible for a sailor's injuries simply because those injuries were caused by the negligent order of the ship's master. The decision had its roots in a common-law doctrine known as the FELLOW-SERVANT RULE. This now outdated concept shifted blame partly, and sometimes entirely, from employers to fellow workers. If sued because a worker was injured on the job, employers could avert liability by blaming the accident on the negligence of fellow employees. In Osceola the Court based its reasoning on a socalled fellow-seaman...