Maritime and Seamans Workers’ Compensation

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While the generic term "workers' compensation" is often applied to any instance in which an employee seeks coverage for an on-the-job injury, state workers' compensation laws that apply to land-based employment do not apply to work aboard vessels. Under federal law, however, seamen injured aboard ship have three possible sources of compensation: the principle of maintenance and cure, the Jones Act and the doctrine of unseaworthiness.

Principle of Maintenance and Cure

Under maritime law, the principle of maintenance and cure requires a shipowner to pay both for an injured seaman's medical treatment until maximum medical recovery is obtained and for his living expenses while he is convalescing. The obligation to "cure" requires the shipowner to provide medical care, free of charge, to any seaman injured while in the service of the ship until he or she achieves "maximum medical cure." This concept is more extensive than just maximum medical improvement, as it includes an obligation to provide the injured seaman with any medical devices, such as prostheses or wheelchairs, that contribute to his or her ability to function, even if they don’t improve the actual medical condition. Similarly, it also applies to medications or long-term treatments that enhance the injured seaman's quality of life.

The obligation of "maintenance" requires the shipowner to provide the seaman with his or her basic living expenses while convalescing. Once a seaman is able to return to work, he is expected to maintain himself. Thus, a seaman can lose his right to maintenance, while the right to “cure” is ongoing.

Jones Act: Protection for Injured Seamen

Seamen, or the members of a vessel's crew, as well as offshore workers, divers and other workers that contribute to either the function of a vessel or the purpose of its voyage are also covered under a federal law known as the Jones Act. This law enables workers to file suit against an employer if an injury or death occurs as a result of negligence on the part of the shipowner or other employees. Damages recoverable under the Jones Act may include medical expenses, loss of income, and pain and suffering. However, negligence of the injured seaman (comparative negligence) can reduce the overall amount of damages awarded.

Under this law, employers and vessel owners have a duty to prevent offshore accidents by ensuring that vessels are free from dangers and by warning maritime workers of any hazardous conditions in the workplace. This duty of care is higher than the duty normally associated with “slip and fall” incidents that occur on land. For example, under the Jones Act, maritime employers are responsible for:

  • Providing a safe work environment, including safe equipment, tools and safety devices
  • Conducting regular inspections to ensure that the work environment is safe and free of hazards
  • Providing adequate training, supervision and assistance to all employees
  • Taking adequate measures to ensure that workers are safe from the harmful acts of others
  • Adopting and enforcing safety rules and regulations


According to federal maritime law, a ship may be considered unseaworthy if there is any unreasonably dangerous condition present onboard. While many vessels may be capable of going out to sea, some employers seeking to save money may scrimp on safety measures and allow unseaworthy vessels to venture offshore, thereby endangering the crew and others. Examples of unseaworthiness may include any failure to:

  • properly man a vessel
  • maintain the decks or passageways
  • properly use or stow lines, wires or cables
  • provide enough lifeboats or other required safety gear

The laws related to unseaworthiness can also apply if the shipowner insists that the crew work in inclement weather or under dangerous conditions.

Get Help from a Maritime Lawyer

If you are a seaman who has suffered an injury, immediately contact an attorney who specializes in maritime law. Such an attorney will be best able to help you protect your rights and help you get the compensation you deserve.

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