While Mourning for South Korea, Americans Should Be Thankful for the Jones Act

Mourners cry after paying tribute in Ansan, at a temporary group memorial altar for victims of capsized passenger ship Sewol April 23, 2014. South Korean divers swam though dark, cold waters into a sunken ferry on Wednesday, feeling for children's bodies with their hands in a maze of cabins, corridors and upturned decks as they searched for hundreds of missing. (c) REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Mourners cry after paying tribute in Ansan, at a temporary group memorial altar for victims of capsized passenger ship Sewol April 23, 2014. South Korean divers swam though dark, cold waters into a sunken ferry on Wednesday, feeling for children’s bodies with their hands in a maze of cabins, corridors and upturned decks as they searched for hundreds of missing. (c) REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Brian Beckcom

As I write, reports indicate that at least 100 people are confirmed dead in the latest foreign maritime disaster, the South Korean ferry accident. Many of the dead and missing are school kids. The death toll is sure to rise.

This incident will be investigated thoroughly, people will likely face criminal prosecution, and blame will be placed on different actors.

But here’s what won’t happen:

The families who suffered or lost loved ones won’t be able to hold the businesses economically responsible for this incident—at least not to any meaningful degree. And the operators in this region of the world likely won’t do much to avoid other tragedies just like this one. That’s because unlike in the United States and other developed Western countries, operators  don’t face the same threat of meaningful monetary or regulatory consequences when they make poor choices that lead to horrible tragedy.

In light of recent foreign maritime accidents like the Costa Concordia grounding, the Somali pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama, and this latest tragedy, and in my role as a United States-based lawyer who prosecutes cases involving significant maritime incidents, I have been stunned to read over the last year about how certain powerful domestic interests want to weaken—not strengthen—the U.S. law that regulates our U.S. fleet, namely the Jones Act.

Some of these interests characterize the Jones Act as “protectionist” in the pejorative sense, meaning that the Jones Act limits competition and raises prices by prohibiting foreign interests from competing with and undercutting our domestic fleet.

But one could also use “protectionist” in a different, more positive sense. As in “the Jones Act protects our maritime industry from dangerous operators, protects our kids and our marine workers from lax safety standards, and protects our environment and national defense from sub-standard foreign operators.”

We need to learn our lessons when it comes to maritime safety and security. This latest disaster only serves to reinforce what the primary lesson should be for Americans—that is, the Jones Act may be “protectionist,” but it protects more than companies; it protects each and every citizen of this nation.

Brian Beckcom is a parter at Houston-based law firm VB Attorneys which prosecutes maritime accident cases for injured seafarers.