Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Affirm Seaman's Status Under the Jones Act

The Port of Seattle sees many types of vessels, including different types of lift boats and marine cranes. A recent maritime law decision out of the Fifth Circuit affirmed a verdict in favor of an injured vessel repair supervisor who sought damages from his employer under the Jones Act. In this case the injured worked aboard the lift-boats while they were moored, jacked up, or docked in the employer's shipyard canal. The injured inspected for repairs, cleaned vessels, painted vessels, replaced defective or damaged parts, repaired engines, went on test runs, secured equipment, and operated the vessel's marine cranes and jack-up legs. 30 percent of his time was working in the shipyard's fabrication shop and 70% of the time was spent working aboard the vessels.

The seaman was injured after the boom and crane house separated from the crane pedestal. The injured jumped as it fell over onto a nearby building, breaking both feet and injuring a lower abdominal hernia. As the injured recovered in the hospital, he learned of the death of a relative who also worked for the same company. His cousin's husband was crushed by the crane and killed. The injured underwent several surgeries and physical therapy sessions, but was unable to return to physical work. Up to the time of the trial, the injured still had chronic pain in his feet, chronic depression, and difficulty walking.

The injured filed suit under the Jones Act, alleging that his employer was negligent in the construction and/or maintenance of the LC-400 shipyard crane. The jury awarded him $1,000,000 for past and future physical pain and suffering, $1,000,000 for past and future mental suffering and $400,000 for future lost wages. The employer appealed, questioning the lower court's determination that the injured qualified as a seaman under the Jones Act. The employer argued that the injured was a land-based ship repairman and not connected to vessels in navigation. Part of the employer's argument focused on the injured's status under the Longshore and Harbor Worker's Compensation Act, which provides relief for ship repairman. The employer reasoned that the coverage under the LHWCA precluded any coverage under the Jones Act.

The Court reviewed a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Pizzotolo in Southwest Marine, Inc. v. Gizoni, 502 U.S. 81 (1991), which determined that the Jones Act covers anyone who falls under the definition of "seaman", regardless of whether the injured may also qualify for coverage under LHWCA. The Supreme Court's two-prong test first looks at whether the employee's duties contribute to the function of the vessel or the accomplishment of its mission and whether the seaman has a connection to vessel in navigation. The connection must be substantial in both duration and nature. Case law has developed the general rule that a worker qualifies as a seaman if the worker spend 30 percent or more of his or her time in the service of a vessel in naviagation. The employer argued that by the nature of his work, the injured was not exposed to the "perils of the sea", but the Court dismissed that idea. The Court of Appeals referred to another decision which found a crane operator to be a seaman, and applied the same reasoning to the injured in this case.

The Washington Jones Act attorneys Gordon Webb and John Merriam are here to help injured seamen and their families recover the damages they are entitled to under the statute. If you have been injured contact us today at 877.800.1007.

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