Fifth Circuit Will Rehear Seaman Status Question En Banc

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has withdrawn a ruling reversing a lower court and agreed to rehear a maritime case en banc—that is, with the full panel of judges—in order to resolve what it believes is a discrepancy in existing maritime law over the standard for determining who is and who is not a Jones Act seaman.

The case is  Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas. The plaintiff, Gilbert Sanchez, was injured when he tripped on a pipe welded to the deck of a jacked-up offshore drilling rig. He filed a negligence action against his employer, SmartFab, claiming Jones Act seaman status.

The district court denied Sanchez’s motion to remand to state court and granted SmartFab’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that Sanchez did not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act.

The Fifth Circuit  held that Sanchez did qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act by meeting both prongs of a test devised by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1995 case, Chandris v. Latsis. The lower court found that Sanchez met only one of those prongs by doing work that had a “substantial connection” in nature and duration to the vessel (a jack-up rig that remained docked). But it said that because he did not actually go to sea and was not exposed to the “perils of the sea,” he didn’t meet the second part of the test. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, arguing that Sanchez met both parts of the test for qualifying as a Jones Act seaman, even though he didn’t actually go to sea.

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However, in an unusual move, the three-judge panel requested a rehearing (in a concurrence) by the full bench of Fifth Circuit judges because they recognized that their ruling might come into conflict with other Supreme Court rulings on the definition of a Jones Act seaman. The concurrence argued that the full court should rehear this matter en banc where the entire group of judges on the Fifth Circuit hear the case and decide it, in order to allow the Fifth Circuit Court’s jurisprudence to now fall in line with Supreme Court case law. An order dated October 30 was issued by the Fifth Circuit Court to announce it would now rehear this case en banc.

Grady Hurley, leader of the maritime litigation and arbitration team at Jones Walker and co-chair of its Energy, Environmental & Natural Resources Industry Team, had earlier written that the judges in this case are looking to remove or resolve ambiguities in existing definitions of who is a Jones Act seaman, as well as what constitutes a “vessel” (WJ, September 11).

Before a full en banc hearing is held on a disputed question like this, the court is likely to solicit amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs from a variety of interested organizations and parties.