Federal court clarifies injured seaman rights

| May 19, 2020 | Maritime Law |

A worker who meets the definition of a seaman under the Jones Act has special rights, not held by other workers, to seek damages for injuries that are more generous than workers’ compensation. A recent federal court of appeals decision helped clarified whether a worker meets the definition of seaman under federal maritime law.

In 1995, the US Supreme Court developed a two-part test for determining whether a worker was a seaman under the Jones Act. First, the person’s duties must contribute to a vessel’s function or mission. Next, that person must be substantially connected to the vessel or fleet of vessels’ navigation.

This case involves a welder who worked on board jacked-up offshore drilling rigs. His employer is a contractor engaged in steel fabrication and equipment repair.

The welder was injured when he tripped on a pipe that was welded to the deck of a drilling rig. His employer did not contest that the worker met the first part of the Supreme Court’s test because the worker’s duties contributed to the vessel’s function or mission. The federal district court also held the trial found that the worker spent 65 of his 67 workdays on the drilling rig.

But the contractor objected to the worker’s connection to the vessel which is the second part of the test. This element is intended to distinguish sea-based maritime workers from land-based workers who have a part-time or sporadic connection to the vessel. It is important to determine whether the worker’s duties take him to sea under this second requirement.

The trial court and the court of appeals ruled that the worker’s duties did not take him to sea. He worked on the rigs when they were jacked-up on the ocean floor. Their main structures were out of water and unaffected waves, tides or other movement. His workplace was stable, flat and above the water.

Also, he was not engaged in tasks connected to the rigs’ operation or navigation. Tripping on a pipe welded to the deck was not associated with any sea perils. The closest association with maritime duties occurred when the rig was undertow for four days. But he was only a passenger at that time.

The outcome of these cases depend on their facts. An attorney can help obtain important evidence and pursue injured workers’ rights to compensation.