Uncertainty Zone Strikes Again: When Courts Disagree on Seaman Status

Uncertainty Zone Strikes Again: When Courts Disagree on Seaman Status

There is an uncertain boundary where the employment status, injury and illness remedies, and insurance coverage requirements overlap between the Jones Act (negligence) and General Maritime Law (GML) (unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure) on the one side and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) on the other.

The Jones Act and GML provide a “seaman” or “a crewmember of a vessel” with a personal injury remedy based on negligence (Jones Act) or vessel unseaworthiness (GML). The LHWCA is a workers’ compensation statute. The two are mutually exclusive in their coverage. The Jones Act and GML only cover seamen and the LHWCA covers land-based maritime workers and specifically excludes seamen.

As a practical matter, there’s an overlap in coverage that challenges employers who must have the correct insurance coverage and for injured workers who must choose the correct remedy.

The courts, employers, employees, and insurance carriers all struggle with the uncertainty on a regular basis. The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has observed, “Thus, despite our continued insistence that a Jones Act ‘seaman’ and a ‘crew member’ excluded from the Longshore Act are one and the same (in other words that the statutes are mutually exclusive) we recognize that in a practical sense, a ‘zone of uncertainty’ inevitably connects the two Acts.”


Larry Naquin Sr. v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C., 744 F.3d 927 (5th Cir. 2014)

Remember the case of Larry Naquin Sr. v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C., 744 F.3d 927 (5th Cir. 2014)? A jury finding of seaman status in favor of a vessel repair supervisor was affirmed on appeal at the Fifth Circuit. The claimant’s primary responsibility was the maintenance and repair of the employer’s fleet of lift boats. He spent approximately 70% of his time onboard the vessels, but he was injured while operating a land-based crane. He only occasionally went to sea on test runs and while vessels where moving from one place to another in the ship channel.

The jury at the district court found that he was a seaman entitled to the seaman’s remedies under the Jones Act and the GML. The appellate review standard of a jury’s fact-finding being what it is the Fifth Circuit affirmed. (Reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, “We will not disturb a jury’s finding of seaman status unless the facts and the law do not reasonably support its conclusion.”)

The Naquin case was an indication that the “definition” of seaman has broadened. Exposure to the “perils of the sea” had been replaced by the “perils of a marine environment”.

NOTE: An unfortunate aspect of this coverage overlap is that, in my opinion, if the claimant had chosen to file a claim with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), which administers the LHWCA, rather than choose the Jones Act remedy, the DOL would have adjudicated his status as a land-based ship repair worker covered by the LHWCA. This is the problem with the coverage uncertainty. The employer must consider that it is in the paradoxical position of having potential liability to employees concurrently under two mutually exclusive remedies, with no resolution until there is a final adjudication in one or the other forum.

NOTE: The separate adjudicatory systems allow an injured employee to concurrently file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits as a land-based maritime worker and also to file a lawsuit under the Jones Act wherein he makes the contrary claim, i.e., that he is a crewmember of a vessel.


Gilbert Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, L.L.C., Fifth Circuit No. 19-20506, March 11, 2020

We have a new Fifth Circuit case dealing with the issue of seaman status.

Gilbert Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, L.L.C., Fifth Circuit No. 19-20506, March 11, 2020, is the case of a welder injured while working on a jack up offshore oil drilling rig (a vessel). The injured worker chose to bring a negligence action against his employer under the Jones Act.

NOTE: Mr. Sanchez’s employer did not own or operate any vessels. He worked under contract on other’s vessels. You do not have to own or operate vessels to have a potential Jones Act exposure.

So, here we go again. Was he a seaman, or was he a ship repair worker?

Since we’re revisiting this whole issue, let’s review the U.S. Supreme Court’s test for seaman status from Chandris v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995).

It is a two-part test:

  1. Did the worker contribute to the mission or function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission?
  2. Did the worker have an employment connection to a vessel substantial in terms of both duration and nature? A 30 percent rule of thumb is used with respect to the “duration” element of the substantial relationship inquiry.

This is the only test that we have to separate land-based workers covered by the LHWCA from sea-based workers covered by the Jones Act and the GML.

The “substantial in nature” element of the seaman status test was at issue in the Sanchez case, as it was in the Naquin case. Mr. Sanchez met the first part of the test (contribute to the mission or function of the vessel) and the duration element of the second part of the test. In view of the Naquin case’s finding of seaman status for a ship repair supervisor, the ship repair worker in the Sanchez case (remember, the jack up rig he was working on was a vessel) might have been confident of a ruling in his favor on the question of seaman status. It did not go that way. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court judge’s holding that Sanchez was not a Jones Act seaman.

There was a major difference in the posture of the two cases, however. In Naquin, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a jury’s factual determination. In Sanchez, the district court had granted summary judgment for the defendant employer as a matter of law, a ruling which an appeals court reviews de novo.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s rationale in distinguishing the result in the Naquin case. Specifically, Sanchez worked on drilling rigs only “while they were jacked up on the sea floor, with the body of the rig out of the water and not subject to waves, tides, or other water movement”. Sanchez’s workplace was “stable, flat, and well above the water”. Sanchez did not perform “tasks requiring operating or navigating the rigs”. He was a welder, and he was injured when he “tripped on a pipe welded to the floor, a circumstance unrelated to any perils of the sea”.

Of course, Mr. Naquin worked mostly in a shipping channel also not subject to waves, etc. He was working on land when he was injured, operating a crane. His work did not take him to sea, and it was generally unrelated to any perils of the sea.

So, we have two ship repair workers: one working mostly on moored vessels in a ship channel, the other on a jack up oil rig. Neither worker really faced the “perils of the sea”. Mr. Naquin convinced a jury that he was a seaman. Mr. Sanchez could not convince a judge.

Has the Sanchez case clarified the application of the Chandris seaman test for workers in the uncertainty zone? Not really, except to the extent that, in my opinion, the Fifth Circuit has possibly narrowed the applicability of Naquin in the “substantial nature” element of the seaman status test. At any rate, it is an interesting case because of the extended discussion of Naquin. 

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