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Person who navigates ships or assists in the conduct, maintenance, or service of ships.

Sailors have historically received special treatment under the law because of the nature of their work. Sailing a vessel through treacherous waters, often for long distances, is an isolated and dangerous undertaking. Although most countries have developed comprehensive policing methods on land, the international community has not been able to muster the resources necessary to police the entire expanse of every body of water. Thus, except when moving along coasts or on rivers, ships are essentially cut off from the rest of the world as they sail from port to port.

The unique problems sailors face have often aroused judicial concern. In 1823, for example, while serving as a circuit court justice, Supreme Court justice Joseph Story wrote in Harden v. Gordon, 11 F. Cas. 480 (Cir. Ct. D. Maine 1823) that sailors are

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 provision 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.

Although sailors still face unusual challenges and dangers, their situation now is far less desperate than that described by Story in 1823. Merchant marines (professional sailors), at least in the United States, are well-paid professionals; they are represented by unions and receive the same employment benefits as other organized professionals.

Sailors sign employment contracts for specific voyages. The contract may be made with the ship itself in the ship's capacity as a corporate entity, or it may be made directly with the master of the ship. In any contract, a sailor is entitled to sail in a staunch and watertight ship that is properly equipped and handled by a competent crew. The employer must supply wholesome food during the voyage, and any sailor who becomes sick is entitled to maintenance and cure. Maintenance and cure is the duty of an employer to provide medical services to a sailor until the sailor recovers or the voyage ends. If a sailor requires immediate medical attention, the master of the ship may be required to change its course to find the closest hospital. A sailor's right to maintenance and cure is not limited to illnesses or injuries suffered while at sea; employers are similarly required to provide maintenance and cure for illnesses or injuries that occur during shore leave.

Courts have developed the right to maintenance and cure in deference to the sailor's difficult and unique employment situation. Fear of mutiny is one reason for providing maintenance and cure. As Story observed in Harden, if sailors' earnings were taken away for illnesses or injuries suffered while at sea, "the great motives for good behaviour might be ordinarily taken away."

Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (46 App. U.S.C.A. § 688 [1997]) to provide sailors with a remedy in federal court for employment-related injuries. The act, also known as the Jones Act, specifically grants to a "seaman" the right to recover from an employer for the Negligence of the employer or the unseaworthiness of the vessel. The act authorizes a trial by jury, and it also gives relatives of sailors a right to recover damages for a sailor's death.

Because Congress failed to define the term seaman in the Jones Act, much of the litigation involving the act has been over who qualifies for the remedies it provides. Originally only persons engaged in the navigation of a ship qualified for coverage. In 1995, in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 115 S. Ct. 2172, 132 L. Ed. 2d 314, the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that a shore-based engineer who takes occasional voyages may be deemed a sailor under the act. According to the Court, to qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act, the worker's duties must contribute to the accomplishment of a vessel's mission, and the worker must have a connection to a vessel or group of vessels in navigation. The connection must be substantial in both duration and nature. Thus a shore-based person who works on the ventilation system in a ship but does not sail on a ship does not qualify as a sailor, but a shore-based vessel engineer who takes occasional voyages may be deemed a seaman under the Jones Act.

Further readings

Alfieri, Mark. 1997. "Guevara v. Maritime: Caught in the Wake of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp." Houston Journal of International Law 19 (winter).Allbritton, Jack L., and David W. Robertson. 1995. "Seaman Status After Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis." University of San Francisco Maritime Law Journal 8 (fall).

Madrid, Eileen R. 1992. "Seaman Status: The Supreme Court Overrules Pizzitolo." Louisiana Bar Journal 39 (April).


Admiralty and Maritime Law; Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of 1918.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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