Fifth Circuit Reaches Decision on Seaman Status in Sanchez Case

Fifth Circuit Reaches Decision on Seaman Status in Sanchez Case

The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued an important decision for maritime employers. It has corrected its course and has overruled its decision in Naquin v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C. In the process, it has outlined a more detailed analytical framework for applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s test for seaman status established in the case of Chandris v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347.

Let’s start at the beginning.


Gilbert Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, L.L.C., No. 19-20506, 5th Cir., 05/11/2021

Sanchez was a land-based welder assigned on a short-term contract to work on two jack up rigs (vessels). He worked on the rig at issue in this case performing repairs while it was dockside, two steps across a gangplank from land, and he commuted to work daily from his home. He worked to prepare the rig for future drilling operations, and he was going to move on to another job when the repairs were completed. He would not move with the rig when it went into operation.

In Sanchez’s Jones Act lawsuit, the federal district court granted summary judgment to the employer, finding that Sanchez did not qualify as a Jones Act seaman.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit issued a decision affirming the district court’s judgment, then withdrew that decision and in a new decision issued in August 2020 reversed the district court, finding that Sanchez was after all a seaman. The appeals court felt bound by circuit precedent since in the Naquin case it had affirmed a jury finding that a land-based crane operator who worked as a ship repairman on docked vessels and virtually never went to sea was a Jones Act crewmember. In a concurring opinion, one of the judges, perhaps realizing that the court had just ruled that a ship repair worker obviously covered by the provisions of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA, or Longshore Act) (which excludes crewmembers), proposed that the Circuit review the Sanchez case en banc.

To its credit, the Court did just that, and we can fast forward to the just filed en banc opinion in Sanchez.

The only issue being considered was whether Sanchez was a crewmember entitled to the crewmember remedies under the Jones Act and general maritime law.

Since it was once again considering the question of who is included in the term “seaman”, the court reviewed U.S. Supreme Court precedents.

NOTE: Oddly enough, the Jones Act, the statutory tort remedy given to “any seaman” in 1920, does not define “seaman”. The courts use the “definition” offered in the Longshore Act, i.e., “a master or member of a crew of any vessel”. 

The Supreme Court in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995) had established a two-part test for evaluating claims of seaman status. First, the employee must contribute to the mission or function of a vessel, and second, the employee must have a substantial employment relationship to a vessel in terms of both duration and nature.

Since Sanchez did, in fact, contribute to the mission or function of the rig in providing repairs so that it could resume operations, and since he did satisfy the 30% rule of thumb for the duration element of the employment relationship, the case centered on whether Sanchez met the nature element of the substantial employment relationship test. 

It is here that the court adds additional elements or inquiries to the Chandris test.

(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?

(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 (b) Does the worker’s assignment include sailing with the vessel from port to port or location to location?

The court went out of its way to point out that whether the worker is subject to the “perils of the sea” is not enough to resolve the nature of the employment relationship element of the Chandris test. There are workers who can qualify as crewmembers whose exposure to the perils of the sea is minimal. But this time around the court did recall that the U.S. Supreme Court in Harbor Tug and Barge Company v. Papai, 520 U.S. 548 (1991) had indicated that maintenance work performed while the vessel was docked did not constitute “sea-going” activity.

Applying its enhanced version of the Chandris crewmember test in the Sanchez case, the court found that Sanchez’s work was clearly not “sea-based”. All his work was performed while the vessel was jacked-up with the deck level with the dock and a gang plank away from shore. After he finished his repair work he was not going to sail with the vessel.

The decision contains a helpful expository paragraph, which we can expect to see carefully parsed in future cases.

“Our case law reveals generally that two types of workers are found on drilling rigs. First, we have the drilling crew, who conduct the drilling operations (and workers who support that activity) and stay with the vessel when it moves from one drilling location to another. These workers are the members of the crew of the vessel and are seamen. The second group are specialized transient workers, usually employed by contractors. These workers are engaged to do specific discrete short term jobs. Discrete transient jobs are like the work done by longshoremen when a vessel calls in port. As stated in Papai, these workers have only a ‘transitory or sporadic’ connection to a vessel or group of vessels and do not qualify for seaman status. Sanchez, as a transitory worker, falls into the second group, and thus does not satisfy the nature test.”    

So Naquin is overruled, and Mr. Sanchez is not a seaman. This is a very welcome development. As future claims arise and we see the principles established by the Sanchez decision applied in those cases, presumably we will see fewer seaman’s claims filed by land-based maintenance, shipbuilding, and repair workers. For employers and their insurance carriers, this is welcome clarity.

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About the Author

Jack Martone joined The American Equity Underwriters, Inc. in 2006, where he serves as Senior Vice President, AEU Advisory Services. Prior to AEU, Jack served for 27 years in the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Workers Compensation Programs, as Chief, Branch of Insurance, Financial Management, and Assessments and Acting Director, Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation for the U.S. Department of Labor. As Branch Chief, Jack directed the licensing and regulation of insurance carriers and self-insured employers under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. Jack received his bachelor’s degree from Fordham University and his Juris Doctorate from St. John’s University School of Law.

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