QCR Summer 2021: Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, L.L.C. (5th Cir. May 11, 2021) (en banc)
The Court took the opportunity to formally overturn a previous case, Naquin v. Elevating Boats L.L.C., 744 F.3d 927 (5th Cir. 2014) and its progeny, for its misinterpretation of the seaman status test, citing the UK Club’s Taylor Coley’s published academic work criticizing same.
Gilbert Sanchez was a welder-fitter employed by Smart Fabricators of Texas (“SmartFab”) for 67 days prior to his injury. He worked 61 out of 67 days aboard two jack-up drilling rigs, which were jacked up so that the deck of the barge was level with an adjacent dock. The rig he was injured on was stationary and separated from the dock by a gangplank, which allowed Sanchez to take two steps to land where he commuted home every evening. In August 2018, while working on a rig owned by Enterprise Offshore Drilling, LLC, Sanchez was injured when he tripped on a pipe welded to the deck.
Sanchez sued his employer under the Jones Act to pursue remedies unavailable to non-seaman. He claimed he was a seaman because he spent 19% of his employment aboard a jack-up rig (the ENTERPRISE 263) in the Gulf of Mexico. He performed welding work on the vessel and was aboard while the rig was moved via tugboats to various locations in the Gulf. However, his work onboard was on a discrete, individual job and, once finished, Sanchez had no further connection to the vessel.
The seaman status test has been a multi-pronged, heavily fact-based inquiry cobbled together from several U.S. Supreme Court precedents since the Jones Act’s inception (1920). In Sanchez, the Fifth Circuit overturned a three-judge panel decision and reinstated the District Court’s below holding that a land-based welder working on a jack-up rig failed to meet the elements of seaman status because his work’s connection to a vessel was not substantial in nature. The Court also took the opportunity to formally overturn a previous case, Naquin v. Elevating Boats L.L.C., 744 F.3d 927 (5th Cir. 2014) and its progeny, for its misinterpretation of the seaman status test, citing the UK Club’s Taylor Coley’s published academic work criticizing same.
Precedent from the Supreme Court has basically set out the seaman status test into two requirements: in order to be considered a seaman for purposes of the Jones Act, a worker must (1) contribute to the function of the vessel or accomplishment of its mission; and (2) have a connection to a vessel that is (a) substantial in duration, and (b) substantial in nature. Precedential dicta from prior Supreme Court cases have discussed whether a worker was subject to the “perils of the sea” alone could imbue him with seaman status. Sanchez has settled the score finally in the Fifth Circuit- incidental subjection of a worker to “perils of the sea” cannot (and in the instant matter, did not) resolve the nature element of the aforementioned test.
Instead of devising a new, succinct, seaman status test, the Fifth Circuit opted to reinforce the fact-based nature of the inquiry by setting forth the following additional criteria to be examined regarding the worker’s connection to a vessel:
- Does the worker owe his allegiance to the vessel, rather than simply to a shoreside employer?
- Is the work sea-based or involve seagoing activity?
- 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 does the worker’s assignment include sailing with the vessel from port to port or location to location?
Looking to the above factors, the Court concluded that Sanchez was a land-based worker whose transient connection to the ENTERPRISE 263 did not give him a connection to a vessel that was substantial in nature sufficient to make him a seaman.
This ruling has significant impact for employers whose generally land-based employees work offshore transiently. By narrowing the scope of those considered seamen, the Court has effectively narrowed the types of workers who may seek Jones Act remedies. This should, ultimately, limit the scope of risks these employers are exposed to via their employees.
However, by increasing the fact-based nature of the judicial test to determine who, in fact, is a seaman, the Court has likely not spared employers from possible exposure to Jones Act risks via errant District Court decisions, and, at minimum, the legal costs of defending against attempts to attain seaman status.
By overturning the Circuit’s established precedent in Naquin, and through this decision, the Court has given the Fifth Circuit a new opportunity to ensure that Jones Act remedies are only available to seamen.
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