Case Could Narrow Jones Act Seaman Status

A Fifth Circuit case awaiting an en banc judgment could make it harder for certain offshore workers working aboard a vessel to claim Jones Act seaman status.

“En banc” means the case is heard by all or a majority of the circuit’s judges, and it is reserved for cases of particular importance. The case is Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas. Gilbert Sanchez, a welder, was injured when he tripped on a pipeline welded to the deck of an offshore platform. He sued his employer, Smart Fabricators of Texas, and claimed seaman status in order to pursue Jones Act remedies.

In Chandris v. Latsis (1995), the Supreme Court had established a two-pronged test to determine whether a person is a seaman under the Jones Act:

1) the person’s duties must contribute to the function or mission of a vessel, and

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2) the person must have a connection to a vessel that is “substantial in terms of both duration and nature.”

Both parties in Sanchez agree that his duties contributed to the vessel’s function or mission. Sanchez had spent 65 out of 67 workdays aboard the jack-up rig, so he met the “duration” prong.

But for the connection to be “substantial in nature,” the Supreme Court ruled in a 1997 case, Harbor Tug & Barge Co. v. Papai, that any inquiry about whether the connection was substantial in nature “must concentrate on whether the employee’s duties take him to sea.” Based on this, the three-judge Fifth Circuit panel ruled that Sanchez did not have a “substantial in nature” connection to the vessel and so was not a Jones Act seaman.

Another issue raised by the Supreme Court is whether or not an employee’s duties expose him to the “perils of the seas,” and whether that exposure happens on vessels like jack-up rigs once they are anchored.

However, in a somewhat unusual move, the three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit withdrew its ruling shortly afterward. Then it was replaced by a different three-judge panel, which encouraged a full en banc hearing by the Fifth Circuit.

Grady Hurley, leader of the maritime litigation and arbitration team at Jones Walker and co-chair of its Energy, Environmental & Natural Resources Industry Team, wrote in a recent article that a judge sought an en banc hearing in an earlier case to resolve ambiguities between Fifth Circuit case law and Supreme Court precedents regarding who is a Jones Act seaman and what is a maritime contract. It’s possible the judges in this case are also looking to remove or resolve ambiguities in existing definitions of who is a Jones Act seaman, as well as what constitutes a “vessel.”

Maritime attorney Matthew Moeller told The Waterways Journal that any narrowing of the analysis of who can claim Jones Act seaman status goes beyond workers on offshore vessels, as it also could significantly impact shore-based workers, who regularly work on inland vessels that do not expose them to the perils of the sea. Neither Hurley nor Moeller are directly involved in the case.

It could be many months before an answer is forthcoming. Before a full en banc hearing is held, the court may solicit amicus briefs from a variety of interested organizations and parties.