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The Jones Act (aka Merchant Marine Act) is a United States Federal statute that requires U.S.-flagged vessels to be built in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and documented under the laws of the United States. Documented means "registered, enrolled, or licensed under the laws of the United States." In addition, all officers and 75% of the crew must be U.S. citizens. Vessels that satisfy these requirements comprise the "Jones Act fleet".

The Jones Act also 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 seaman 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. . . .
The Act was enacted in 1920. The chief statute that it extends to sailors is the Federal Employers Liability Act, also known as FELA.

Like other workers' compensation statutes, the Jones Act entitles injured sailors to what the Act calls "transportation, wages, maintenance and cure:" the employer or shipowner must get the sailor home, pay him wages while unable to work, and provide medical care for his injuries until the sailor has recovered all he will be able to. If the sailor's injuries are the result of negligence, whether by the employer, captain, or another crew member, the sailor may be able to obtain damages for pain and suffering from the employer or shipowner as well.

The United States Supreme Court, in the case of Chandris, Inc., v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 115 S.Ct. 2172 (1995), has ruled that any worker who spends more than thirty percent of his time in the service of a vessel on navigable waters qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act. An action under the Jones Act may be brought either in a U.S. federal court or in a state court.

The Jones Act should not be confused with the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, which is a Federal statute that defines the workers' compensation rights of dockside employees whose work affects shipping upon navigable waters. The Death on the High Seas Act governs remedies for the surviving kin of sailors who die on the job.

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