Fifth Circuit Adds Clarity to “Seaman Status” Test

The Jones Act is a federal statute which enables maritime workers that are considered “seaman” to sue their employers for any injuries sustained while on the job. Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, L.L.C., No, 19-20506, ____F.3d____, (2021). Because Congress never defined the term, courts have struggled to determine which maritime workers are “seaman.”  The United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is no stranger to this struggle. The Supreme Court in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 368 (1995) established a two factor test to determine seaman status. The first prong asked whether the plaintiff’s work contributed to the function of a vessel or fleet of vessels. The worker in Sanchez satisfied this first prong. The “second prong” asked whether a worker has a connection to a vessel or fleet of vessels that is substantial in terms of duration and nature. The recent decision in Sanchez helps to gauge when a worker’s connection to a vessel will be regarded as substantial in its nature.

Gabriel Sanchez was employed by Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC (“SmartFab”) as a land-based welder. Sanchez worked for SmartFab on two jack-up barges owned by SmartFab’s customer, Enterprise Offshore Drilling LLC. On August 8, 2018, while working on the deck of one of the jack-up barges, Sanchez fell and sustained injuries. He filed suit in state court. SmartFab removed the case to federal court. 

Sanchez moved to remand the suit to state court, citing to his seaman status under the Jones Act. The district court denied Sanchez’s motion to remand. It also granted SmartFab’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Sanchez was not a seaman and thus was not covered under the Jones Act. On appeal, a Fifth Circuit panel initially held that Sanchez satisfied the requirements of the seaman status test.  In an en banc opinion, this analysis was called into question.

The full Fifth Circuit explored a trilogy of Supreme Court’s cases it found “enormously helpful” in giving meaning to the term seaman: (1) McDermott International, Inc. v. Wilander, 498 U.S. 337 (1991), (2) Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, and (3) Harbor Tug and Barge Co. v. Papai, 520 U.S. 548 (1997). After reviewing these cases, the Fifth Circuit concluded that simply asking whether a worker is exposed to the “perils of the sea” is not enough to resolve the nature element. Under Sanchez, courts must also consider the following:

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

(2) Is the work sea-based or involve seagoing activity; and

(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 established facts in Sanchez showed that the plaintiff’s work was not sea-based. He had no permanent connection to any vessel. Much of his work involved activities when the rig was “jacked-up” and therefore not in navigation.  Following its redefined analysis, Sanchez held that seaman status was not present because the nature of the plaintiff’s work did not reflect a substantial connection to a vessel.


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