New “Seaman” Definition Will Limit Jones Act Cases

oil rig on the open water

The Fifth Circuit disagreed with its own precedent to adopt a definition of “seaman” that it says is more in line with Supreme Court case law. Under the Jones Act, workers who qualify as seamen have an exclusive means of recovering compensation when they are injured as a result of their employer’s negligence. The Fifth Circuit’s decision in Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC narrowed the definition of who can be defined as a seaman.

Background

Gilbert Sanchez, a welder employed by Smart Fabricators, tripped on a pipe that was welded to the deck of a jacked-up off-shore drilling rig owned and operated by Enterprise Offshore Drilling LLC and was injured. Sanchez worked for Smart Fabricators for 67 days as a welder, spending 61 days (91 percent of his total employment) on two rigs owned by Enterprise Offshore Drilling. He spent 13 days on the Enterprise 263, a rig on the Outer Continental Shelf, where his injury occurred; and 48 days on Enterprise WFD 350, a rig that was adjacent to a shoreline pier, where he worked day shifts and returned home at night. After he was injured, he filed a negligence action against his employer under the Jones Act.

Two-Pronged Test

Courts generally use the Supreme Court’s two-pronged test, established in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, to determine if someone qualifies as a seaman. First, the duties performed by the individual must contribute to the vessel’s function or to the accomplishment of the vessel’s mission. Second, the person’s connection to a vessel in navigation must be substantial in terms of duration and nature. The latter test was developed to distinguish the sea-based maritime employees who are entitled to Jones Act protection from land-based workers who merely have a brief or sporadic connection to a vessel in navigation. In order to determine if there is a “sufficient relation to the navigation of the vessels and the perils attendant thereon,” adjudicators must consider the total circumstances of an individual’s employment, according to the Supreme Court.

The parties agreed that, as a welder, Sanchez contributed to the vessel’s function and mission and therefore met the first prong of the test. However, his employer argued that he failed the second test, to which the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas agreed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit originally overturned the District Court’s decision, stating it was bound by its own precedent, but then walked back its decision, adopting a new test that it says is more consistent with the Supreme Court.

Substantial Connection

To determine if the worker has a substantial connection to the vessel, the court must weigh both the quantity (duration) and quality (nature) of the worker’s duties aboard the vessel. With regard to duration, the Supreme Court held in Chandris that, as a rule of thumb, a “worker who spends less than about 30 percent of his time in the service of a vessel in navigation should not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act.” Sanchez met the duration requirement, the parties agreed, since he spent more than 90 percent of his employment with Smart Fabricators aboard Enterprise Offshore Drilling-owned drilling rigs.

Substantial in Nature

With regard to the nature or quality of the worker’s connection to the vessel, the Supreme Court held in Harbor Tug & Barge Co. v. Papai that the Jones Act should only extend to “those workers who face regular exposure to the perils of the sea.” The Court explained, “For the substantial connection requirement to serve its purpose, the inquiry into the nature of the employee’s connection to the vessel must concentrate on whether the employee’s duties take him to sea.”

The District Court said Sanchez did not meet this test, stating that he was a shoreside worker. The Court observed that his work on vessels – especially the Enterprise WFD 350, where he spent most of his time – did not expose him to the perils of the sea. But Fifth Circuit case law rejected such a narrow reading of the substantial-in-nature requirement. In re Endeavor Marine, the Fifth Circuit held that a crane operator who worked on a moored derrick barge on the Mississippi River met the substantial-in-nature test, since he was regularly exposed to the dangers of the sea in his work, regardless of whether he actually went to sea. Further, in Naquin v. Elevating Boats, the Fifth Circuit held that a vessel repair supervisor who was injured in a shipyard while working on a fleet of liftboats satisfied the substantial-in-nature test. “The nature of Sanchez’s employment cannot be distinguished from that of plaintiffs in Endeavor Marine and Naquin,” a three-judge panel held in reversing the District Court.

Fifth Circuit’s Ruling

But the Fifth Circuit overturned the panel decision, reinstating the District Court’s holding that Sanchez failed to meet the definition of seaman under the nature test.

While determining whether a worker was subject to the “perils of the sea” is a consideration, “it is not the sole or even primary test” to determine seaman status, the Fifth Circuit stated. In fact, in Chandris, the Supreme Court stated, “The ultimate inquiry is whether the worker in question is a member of the vessel’s crew or simply a land-based employee who happens to be working on the vessel at a given time.”

Seeking to align its precedent with the Supreme Court, the Fifth Circuit suggested that courts consider the following inquiries when determining whether a worker is a seaman:

  • Does the worker owe his allegiance to the vessel, rather than simply to a shoreside employer?
  • Is the work sea-based or involve seagoing activity?
  • Is the worker’s assignment to a vessel limited to performance of a discrete task after which the worker’s connection to the vessel ends or does the worker’s assignment include sailing with the vessel from port to port or location to location?

Based on this enhanced definition, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Sanchez’s work was not “sea-based.” His work was performed while the vessel was jacked up next to the dock, and, after finishing his welding work, he would not be sailing with the vessel.

The Takeaway

This narrower definition will likely lead to fewer Jones Act claims filed by land-based maritime maintenance and repair workers.

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