QCR Summer: 2020 Sanchez v Smart Fabricators LLC

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Analyzes Jones Act Seaman Status. 

In the recent decision of Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas LLC, (5th Cir. March 11, 2020) the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the contours of Jones Act seaman status in reviewing a decision of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The district court had held that a welder who was injured when he tripped over a pipe on the deck of a jacked-up offshore drilling rig was not a Jones Act seaman, based on its application of the Supreme Court’s two-pronged seaman status test. 

The employee, Sanchez, filed a negligence lawsuit against his employer in state court under the Jones Act. His employer then sought to have the case removed to federal court based on its position that Sanchez did not meet the requirements for seaman status set forth by the Supreme Court. Typically Jones Act claims brought in state court are not subject to removal to federal court if the injured employee is deemed to be a seaman. Sanchez then filed a motion to remand the case to state court, however the district court agreed with his employer’s position that Sanchez did not meet seaman status and refused to remand the case. The district court also later granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on the same basis. 

The key determination in the Supreme Court’s seaman status test is whether the employee “face[s] regular exposure to the perils of the sea.” This determination is based on a two-pronged test: 1) whether the employee’s duties “contribute[d] to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission”; and 2) whether the employee had a connection to a vessel or group of vessels that was “substantial in terms of both its nature and duration.” The second prong of the test focuses on “whether the employee’s duties take him to sea.”

The Fifth Circuit agreed with district court that Sanchez met the first prong of the test as his duties as a welder contributed to the mission of the drilling rig. The Fifth Circuit then focused on the second prong of the test where the district court had found that Sanchez’ connection to the vessel was not substantial in nature or duration. In making its finding, the district court distinguished an earlier Fifth Circuit decision (Naquin v. Elevating Boats, LLC, 744 F.3d 927 (5th Cir. 2014)). In Naquin, the injured employee was a vessel repair supervisor who spent approximately 70% of his time on lift boats which were moored, docked or jacked up. His duties included operating the vessel’s crane and jack up legs. Based on these facts, the district court in Naquin found the plaintiff to be a Jones Act seaman and awarded him $2 million. On appeal, Naquin’s employer argued he did not qualify for seaman status because he rarely spent the night on the vessel and while he was on board, the vessel was usually docked and almost never in open sea. The Fifth Circuit rejected these arguments, finding that performing his duties near shore still exposed the plaintiff to the “perils of a maritime work environment.”

The district court in Sanchez found Naquin distinguishable because the rigs on which Sanchez was working were jacked up from the sea floor on 65 of the 67 days he worked on board, “with the body of the rig out of the water and not subject to waves, tides, or other water movement.” Also, the lower court found it significant that the only time Sanchez was on board the rig while it was on open seas was for four days while it was under tow and that during this time he was treated like a passenger rather than a crew member. The Fifth Circuit agreed with these findings and affirmed the district court’s holding that Sanchez was not a Jones Act seaman.

Comments

The Sanchez decision demonstrates that courts will closely scrutinize the facts of Jones Act claims on a case-by-case basis to determine seaman status and there is no bright line rule for this determination.