Fishing For Coverage: Fifth Circuit’s Recent Ruling Narrows Number Of Individuals Considered “Seamen” Under The Jones Act

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On May 11, 2021, the Fifth Circuit, sitting en banc, walked some of its precedent off the plank when it reexamined who qualifies as a “seaman” under the Jones Act. Apart from general maritime law, the Jones Act provides seamen with their exclusive means of recovering compensation for injuries sustained as a result of their employer’s negligence. Therefore, whether an individual qualifies as a seaman under the act is a fairly meaningful inquiry. Despite the term’s importance, however, Congress did not define the term in the act, so courts have endeavored to define the term through the use of various tests.

As a general matter, courts employ the Supreme Court’s two-pronged test to determine whether an individual qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act. Under the first prong, courts look to whether an employee’s duties contribute to the function of the vessel or the accomplishment of its mission — a relatively simple and easily satisfied inquiry. Under the second prong, courts look to whether the employee’s connection to a vessel in navigation is substantial in terms of duration and nature. In the Fifth Circuit, an individual satisfies the durational aspect of the second prong if he or she spends at least 30 percent of his or her time in the service of a vessel in navigation. Where things get a bit more complicated, and where the Fifth Circuit reversed course last week in Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC, is determining when an individual’s connection to a vessel is substantial in nature.

Prior to Sanchez, the Fifth Circuit classified an individual’s connection as substantial if the connection subjected the individual to the “perils of the sea.” However, the Fifth Circuit had applied the “perils of the sea” test quite broadly in some cases and found that individuals who worked exclusively on vessels that were moored or docked might qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act. In Sanchez, the Fifth Circuit acknowledged its prior precedent likely missed the boat due to Supreme Court precedent that seemingly demanded a more robust analysis. Now, rather than only ask whether an individual’s work subjects him or her to the “perils of the sea,” the Fifth Circuit will ask:

  1. Whether the worker owes his allegiance to the vessel, rather than simply acting as a shoreside employee?
  2. Whether the work is sea-based/involves seagoing activity?
  3. Whether the worker’s assignment (a) is limited to performance of a discrete task after which the worker’s connection to the vessel ends or (b) includes sailing with the vessel from port to port or location to location?

One practical application of this ruling moving forward is that the court will be able to more readily differentiate the two types of workers generally found on drilling rigs: workers who conduct the drilling operations and stay with the vessel when it moves from location to location — seamen — and specialized transient workers who are usually employed by contractors and are engaged to do specific discrete short-term jobs — not seamen.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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