On the Sea, But Not A Seaman: When Maritime Workers Can Bring Claims Under the Jones Act and General Maritime Law
BatesCarey LLP (Chicago, Illinois)
The Jones Act and general maritime law provide maritime workers with specific remedies after an injury. However, not all maritime employees are entitled to these remedies. In a recent case, Ross v. W&T Offshore, Inc., 2018 WL 6492762 (E.D. La. Dec. 10, 2018) (slip copy), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana found that in order for a maritime worker to avail her or himself of the Jones Act or general maritime law remedies, the injury must involve a “vessel.” In so holding, the court rejected the contention that an employee injured on an oil platform permanently affixed to the sea floor can seek recovery under either the Jones Act or general maritime law.
On July 21, 2016, the plaintiff, Alton Ross slipped, fell, and injured himself while working as a galley-hand and cook. At the time, Mr. Ross was working on W&T Offshore, Inc.’s Ship Shoal 349-A, an oil platform permanently affixed to the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. Mr. Ross filed suit against W&T seeking to recover for his injuries, asserting claims under the Jones Act, under general maritime law for negligence and for the alleged unseaworthiness of the SS 349-A, and under Louisiana law, also for negligence. In support of his Jones Act and general maritime law claims, Mr. Ross asserted that the SS 349-A was a “vessel” and that he qualified as a “seaman.”
W&T filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the Jones Act and general maritime law claims, arguing that the SS 349-A did not qualify as a vessel, as required to sustain a Jones Act and general maritime law claim, and accordingly, Mr. Ross could not qualify as a Jones Act seaman. Mr. Ross argued that he qualified as a seaman based on his employment on the SS 349-A and his prior employment on three other vessels.
Ultimately, the court found in favor of W&T, holding that in order to maintain a cause of action under the Jones Act and general maritime law, an injury must relate to work on a vessel.
Looking to U.S. Supreme Court decisions for guidance, the court noted that only a “seaman” can recover under the Jones Act. A seaman is an “an employee whose duties ‘contribute[e] to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission’ and who has ‘a connection to a ‘vessel’ in navigation . . . that is substantial in terms of both its duration and nature.’” The court found that a “vessel” is a watercraft capable of maritime transportation, “regardless of its primary purpose or state of transit at a particular moment.” However, the court qualified this definition, noting that a watercraft does not qualify as a “vessel” where it “is not ‘capable of being used’ for maritime transport in any meaningful sense” i.e., if it has been permanently moored or otherwise rendered practically incapable of transportation or movement. Following precedent from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the court found that the SS 349-A was both practically and theoretically incapable of movement as it was permanently affixed to the sea floor, had not moved in two decades, had never been used as a form of transportation, was physically incapable of movement, and had no propulsion system or other means of moving itself from one location to another. Accordingly, the SS 349-A did not qualify as a “vessel” and Mr. Ross did not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act.
The court also rejected Mr. Ross’ argument that he qualified as a seaman due to hours worked on vessels prior to being assigned to the SS 349-A. Again, looking to the U.S. Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit for guidance, the court held that in order to qualify as a seaman a worker must have a substantial connection, in time and duration, to a vessel in navigation at the time of the injury. Finding that a worker’s status as a seaman can change based on their assignment, the court found that Mr. Ross did not qualify as a seaman when the injury occurred. Notwithstanding that he may have previously worked on vessels, because he sustained his injury on the SS 349-A, which was not a vessel, he was not a seaman entitled to assert a Jones Act claim.
The court also considered W&T’s argument that Mr. Ross could not succeed on his claims under the general maritime law. Addressing the unseaworthiness claim, the court found that in order to assert a claim for unseaworthiness, a vessel must be involved, which in this case, it was not. Addressing the negligence claim, the court noted that a negligence claim under the general maritime law requires that a tort occur on navigable water (or an injury on land caused by a vessel on navigable water); the incident had a “potentially disruptive effect on maritime commerce;” and the activity giving rise to the incident had a “substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.” The court found that the negligence claim failed at least the third requirement, as the activity—cooking on a fixed platform—bore no “significant relation to traditional maritime activity.”
The decision in Ross reinforces the threshold requirements necessary for seeking relief under the Jones Act and general maritime law. While the Jones Act and general maritime law provide injured maritime workers with remedies, these remedies, as reflected in Ross and the precedents it follows, are not available to every maritime worker who sustains an injury on the water. Mr. Ross was not without a remedy, however, as the court determined in a subsequent ruling that his sole remedy is under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act as made applicable by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. (Jason P. Minkin, Jonathan A. Cipriani, and Melissa A. Sereda, BatesCarey LLP, Chicago, Illinois)