Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals clarifies Jones Act seaman status

Gard has published a piece from its personal injury specialist, Art Gribbin, on the recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, which Gard said had “further clarified the Jones Act requirements in the context of contracted work in the offshore industry”.

Under US maritime law, people who claim the status of “seaman” under the Jones Act have access to special rights not accorded to other workers. In particular, and with regard to their employers, a seaman injured in the service of the ship has a cause of action for negligence against his/her employer, entitling the seaman to damages where the employer’s fault can be proven.

Those who cannot claim seaman’s status are generally limited to statutory workers’ compensation benefits for work-related injuries and are precluded from suing their employers.

In Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC, 952 F.3d 620 (5th Cir. March 11th 2020), the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit revisited the test for determining Jones Act seaman’s status. The Court provided some additional guidance on the application of the second prong of the test – addressing whether a person’s connection to a vessel was substantial in nature.

The plaintiff was a welder working for Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC on board jacked-up offshore drilling rigs. Smart is a contractor in the business of steel fabrication and equipment repair.

The plaintiff was injured when he tripped on a pipe welded to the deck of one of the rigs, subsequently filing a Jones Act negligence action against Smart in state court. Smart removed the case to the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas, challenging his status as a Jones Act seaman.

In Chandris v Latsis (1995), the US Supreme Court established a two-prong test to determine Jones Act seaman’s status:

  1. the person’s duties must contribute to the function or mission of a vessel; and
  2. the person must have a connection to a vessel (or fleet of vessels) in navigation that is substantial in terms of both duration and nature.

Smart conceded the first prong of the test, and the district court found that the plaintiff had a substantial connection to a fleet of vessels in terms of duration – spending 65 of his 67 workdays on the rigs.

It was the nature of the plaintiff’s connection to the vessel that Smart contested. The second prong of the Chandris test is designed “to separate the sea-based maritime employees who are entitled to Jones Act protection from those land-based workers who have only a transitory or sporadic connection to a vessel in navigation.” Therefore, “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.” Harbor Tug & Barge (1997).

The district court found, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, the plaintiff’s duties did not take him to sea in the sense contemplated by the Jones Act. The plaintiff worked on the rigs only when they were jacked-up on the ocean floor, with the body of the rigs out of the water and not subject to waves, tides, or other movement. The plaintiff’s workplace was stable, flat, and well above the water. And the plaintiff did not perform tasks related to the operation or navigation of the rigs. The plaintiff was a welder, and he was injured when he tripped on a pipe welded to the deck, a circumstance unrelated to any perils of the sea. The only time the plaintiff’s work might have taken him to sea in the sense contemplated by the Jones Act was during the four days when the rig he was injured on was under tow – and even then he was treated as a passenger, not as a member of the crew.

The Fifth Circuit made a point of distinguishing this case from its prior pronouncement on Jones Act seaman’s status in Naquin v. Elevating Boats (5th Circuit, 2014). In that case the plaintiff was a repair supervisor working on board lift-boats manufactured by his employer while the lift-boats were either moored, docked, or jacked-up in a shipyard canal.

Even though the lift-boats almost never ventured beyond the immediate area of the canal, they were found to be subject to the “vicissitudes” of a navigable waterway.

Further, in the 2014 case the plaintiff did perform tasks related to the operation of the lift-boats, including operating the vessels’ cranes and jack-up legs. His injury occurred while he was operating one of the lift-boat’s cranes. In rejecting the defence argument in that case that the plaintiff’s work did not take him to sea, the Fifth Circuit emphasized that workers involved in operating vessels near the shore “still remain exposed to the perils of a maritime work environment” and therefore fell within the ambit of the Jones Act.

Gribbin concluded: “The moral of this story: the determination of Jones Act seaman’s status remains extremely fact intensive”.