Fifth Circuit Tightens Test For Definition Of ‘Seaman’

In a ruling closely watched by maritime interests, the full, 17-member United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit narrowed the tests for a  determination of who counts as a “seaman” under the Jones Act. The Fifth Circuit had taken the case “en banc,” meaning all 17 judges (plus a retired senior judge) took part to resolve some conflicts among existing cases and precedents concerning who qualified for Jones Act status.

Maritime attorney Matt Moeller told The Waterways Journal, “The court’s ruling will likely limit the universe of marine contractor personnel who qualify as Jones Act seamen, which could reduce potential Jones Act liability exposure for many vessel owners and operators.”

Vacating a prior ruling by its own three-judge panel, the Fifth Circuit ruled that a welder, Gilbert Sanchez, was not a seaman under the Jones Act after a careful review of a wider selection of previous cases and rulings. The tightening of Jones Act status should provide greater clarity for employers, insurers and maritime attorneys.

The case is Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas. Sanchez 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 not available to non-seamen. Sanchez appealed after his initial state suit was removed to federal court. Jones Act cases generally can’t be removed to federal court. 

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Because Congress never defined the term “seaman,” the Supreme Court had established a number of tests for Jones Act seaman status in prior cases and rulings. In Chandris v. Latsis (1995), the Supreme Court specified 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

2) the person “must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.”

Maritime-related workers who do not qualify for Jones Act seaman status can sue under another law, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act of 1927, which Congress passed to establish a federal compensation remedy for injuries to certain land-based workers occurring on navigable waters. The two laws and their remedies are mutually exclusive; a worker must qualify as one or the other. 

Both parties in Sanchez agree that Sanchez’ duties contributed to the vessel’s function or mission. Sanchez worked on the vessel, the Enterprise 263, for 13 days, or less than 20 percent of his total employment time with SmartFab. 

For the connection with a vessel to be “substantial in nature,” the Supreme Court ruled in a 1997 case, Harbor Tug & Barge Co. v. Papai, that any inquiry “must concentrate on whether the employee’s duties take him to sea.”  

The en banc court agreed, but also went further into its reasoning and use of precedents. It said workers like Sanchez, despite the number of days they might spend on a vessel like a jack-up rig, have only a “transitory or sporadic” connection to the vessel. He worked in a discrete, individual job, and he would have no further connection to the vessel once the job was finished. 

The Fifth Circuit also added questions that it said must be asked by future courts in any inquiry about Jones Act seaman status.

1) Does the worker owe his allegiance to the vessel, rather than simply to a shoreside employer?

2) Is the work sea-based or does it involve seagoing activity? 

3) (a) 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 

3 (b) Does the worker’s assignment include sailing with the vessel from port to port or location to location? 

The full ruling is available at