The Jones Act has long been vitally important to seamen working on American vessels. For example, it protects their rights to health care and other critically needed assets when they are injured or become sick due to their job.

Maritime law defines “seaworthiness” in perhaps unexpected ways, but employers and vessel owners have legal obligations to keep workers safe with a seaworthy vessel. Although a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision generated headlines that may leave some wondering, seaworthiness is still a powerful feature of the Jones Act.

Unseaworthiness and strict liability

Unseaworthiness in maritime law has an unexpected meaning. Most people may assume that an unseaworthy vessel might easily sink or capsize. Instead, unseaworthiness here means the vessel is not suited to its purpose.

A ship may stay afloat and navigate beautifully. But if it is not suited to mooring a crane or hauling in tons of fish, for example, it would be unseaworthy (and prone to causing injuries or even the death of workers) when hired for those purposes.

Vessels owners have strict liability for allowing an unseaworthy vessel to operate under their watch. They can be held responsible for injuries on their vessels, even if their actions did not directly cause an accident. They are strictly liable, and responsible because they own the vessel.

Supreme Court rethinks seaworthiness in Jones Act suits

The recent ruling will affect only a small number of legal actions under the Jones Act, and the doctrine of unseaworthiness is still alive and well.

As before, mariners can sue their employer under the Jones Act for negligence after suffering an injury aboard ship, if the employer does not live up to their responsibility to supply a reasonably safe workplace.

What the Supreme Court decided was, in short, that seamen covered by the Jones Act cannot sue for punitive damages due to unseaworthiness. That is, they cannot use unseaworthiness as a basis for seeking money beyond compensating them for damages they suffered.

This decision may turn out to be most important to ship owners trying to calculate their cost of doing business, and especially the cost of the insurance they need to continue doing business. Mariners continue to rely on the protections of the Jones Act as a mainstay of their rights as American workers.