A Change in the Fifth Circuit Seaman Status Test?
(October 2021) - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently issued an en banc ruling in Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC, 997 F.3d 564 (5th Cir. 2021) holding that an offshore welder assigned to a jack-up drilling rig was not a seaman within the meaning of the Jones Act. In its analysis, the court placed particular emphasis on the nature of the offshore worker’s assignment to the vessel and the determination of whether the work being performed by the employee was “sea-based” or “seagoing” in nature.
More particularly, the Sanchez court found that the plaintiff did not qualify as a Jones Act seaman because he failed to establish a substantial connection in terms of the nature of his work to the fleet of jack-up barges aboard which he worked. The court explained that because less than 30% of his work on the two vessels was performed away from the dock, he did not satisfy the nature element of the substantiality requirement. In addition, according to the court, the plaintiff's entire time aboard the two vessels was spent doing discrete welding jobs as part of repairs to the vessels. As admitted by the court, because this work certainly contributed to the function of these two vessels, as it was necessary to keep the vessels in condition to drill for oil and gas, the plaintiff satisfied the first prong of the seaman-status test.
In its holding, the Sanchez court expressly overruled the panel decision in Naquin v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C., 744 F.3d 927, 932 (5th Cir. 2014), and also called into question the panel decision in In re Endeavor Marine, Inc., 234 F.3d 287, 291 (5th Cir. 2000) to the extent that these decisions held the nature prong of the Chandris test was satisfied if the plaintiff was exposed to the "perils of the sea," without requiring more. Sanchez, 997 F.3d at 573. The Sanchez court clearly required more, and its analysis resulted in speculation about whether it had redefined the status test of a maritime employee who works on a vessel but is not engaged in its navigation, especially for offshore workers assigned to special purpose vessels like jack-up rigs. It has been argued that now, in the wake of Sanchez, courts examining the nature of a putative Jones Act seaman's connection to a vessel must make the following "additional inquiries." That is, in addition to asking whether a worker was subject to the perils of the sea, the following issues must be addressed:
- Does the worker owe his allegiance to the vessel rather than simply to a shoreside employer?
- Is the work sea-based or involve seagoing activity?
- (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?
Id. at 574. See also Meaux v. Cooper Consol., LLC, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118729, __ F. Supp. 3d __, 2021 WL 2635469 applying Sanchez.
As a result of the Sanchez holding, some offshore workers who were considered Jones Act seaman in the past, may now be considered “Sieracki’ seamen or longshoremen, affecting the remedies and damages available to the employee. In addition, such redefining of the status test may also impact insurance and indemnity issues between parties and enforcement of the same.