Federal Court of Appeals Clarifies Definition of Seaman under Jones Act

The Federal Court of Appeals in Maryland issued a decision this week, Dize v. Association of Maryland Pilots, that declined to allow a maritime worker recovery under the Jones Act. The decision hinged upon the definition "seaman", because the Jones Act allows specifies recovery for "seamen", which were traditionally those who worked onboard during a voyage, but has been extended to include those who partially work on land.

In this case, the injured maritime worker contracted silicosis of the lungs. He initially filed a claim against the Association of Maryland Pilots (Association), alleging that they were negligent by failing to provide adequate equipment during a sandblasting project in 2007 to protect him from the tiny particles found in his lungs. The injured worker filed a claim under the Jones Act which provides recovery in the form of maintenance (daily living expenses) and cure (medical related expenses) for crew members when there is negligence by the ship owner or fellow crew members.

The Association did provide him with safety suits, masks, and helmets to perform the task, but the injured worker was claustrophobic, and unable to wear the gear provided. The injured worker was ultimately given the choice of participating in the sandblasting project, or losing his job, so the worker participated, wearing the gear as much as possible. The maritime worker was diagnosed with silicosis of the lungs in 2008, and filed suit against the Association.

The Association claimed that the maritime worker's injuries were covered under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA), which provides legal relief for those who work on the docks and suffer injuries or medical conditions obtained through the occupation. The relief provided under LHWCA differs from the Jones Act - the Jones Act allows for compensation for punitive damages in addition to medical costs, maintenance, funeral expenses. The Association also claimed that Mr. Dize was also contributorily negligent, insubordinate, and had a preexisting condition.

The Association maintained that the injured worker was not a seaman covered by the Jones Act due to the fact that he did not spend at least 30% of his time working onboard a vessel. The maritime worker's duties included running the office on a schedule of 7 days of 24 hours-a-day work and 7 days off. The maritime worker did pilot a launch boat, but the calculated time spent on the water varied and ranged from estimates of 3% to 12.81%. The maritime worker objected to a strict application of 30% time working onboard a vessel or performing a task that is connected to navigation of a vessel as a way of determining whether or not the worker is a "seaman".

The Court of Appeals revisited Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995), which is a Supreme Court case that also assessed whether the injured worker in that case could be defined as a "seaman". The Court in Chandris assessed whether the worker spent more than 30% of his time onboard the vessel, but left open whether duties that contributed to the operation of the vessel need to also be 30% of the injured party's work to be considered a seaman under the Jones Act. The injured worker in the recent case fell far short of the 30% threshold for time onboard a vessel, but maintained that he had enough duties related to the operation of a vessel to qualify. The Association and lower court disagreed, citing cases that state seamen are those whose work exposes them to the perils of the sea. The Court of Appeals determined that there was no reason to stray from the 30% rule and affirmed the lower court's decision that he was not a seaman and not entitled to recover damages under the Jones Act.

If you have sustained an injury at your workplace or at sea, Washington Jones Act attorneys John Merriam and Gordon Webb can help you determine your legal rights. If you have been injured and would like to speak to one of our experienced attorneys, contact our office at 877.800.1007 for a free, confidential consultation.

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