March 03, 2015 Articles

A Primer on Seaman Status under the Jones Act

Practitioners of this specialized area of law must be aware of the issue’s complex legal history.

By Sidney W. Degan, III

Mariners have always enjoyed special status under the law. This is not because, as you might think, of their importance in commerce but because historically their lives have been viewed by courts as being so difficult that they need special protection.

In the early 1800s, President James Madison nominated Joseph Story to the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 18, 1811, Story—who was only 32 at the time—became the youngest Supreme Court Associate Justice; he would serve on the Court until 1845. During Story’s Supreme Court tenure, he continued to ride circuit in several states. The following quote from one of his circuit decisions in 1823 highlights the historical view of mariners in the law:

Seamen are by the peculiarity of their lives liable to sudden sickness from change of climate, exposure to perils, and exhausting labour. They are generally poor and friendless, and acquire habits of gross indulgence, carelessness, and improvidence. If some provisions be not made for them in sickness at the expense of the ship, they must often in foreign ports suffer the accumulated evils of disease, and poverty, and sometimes perish from the want of suitable nourishment.

Harden v. Gordon, et. al. 11 F. Cas. 480, 483 (D. Maine. 1823)

As is evident, mariners were not viewed as upstanding pillars of the community. It is indeed remarkable that a sitting Supreme Court justice went so far as to describe them as “poor and friendless” and “acquiring habits of gross indulgence” because of the harsh nature of their work at sea.

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