The law has long held that seamen are afforded special protections. As early as 1823, the law recognized the perils of this particular profession: vulnerability to sickness, exposure to the harsh world of the seven seas, and lack of wealth and social standing. Harden v. Gordon, et. al., 11 F. Cas. 480 (D. Maine 1823). Congress recognized the need for this heightened protection and passed the Jones Ace in 1920. The passage of the Jones Act thereafter allowed an injured seaman to pursue a negligence action against his employer. However, Congress forgot to tell us who qualified as a seaman.
Cue the numerous decisions attempting to carve out the definition of a seaman for purposes of the Jones Act. The Supreme Court recognized it needed to step in to resolve the ongoing debates created over an injured worker’s status. In Chandris, Inc. v. Latis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995), the Supreme Court held that a seaman was a worker who contributes to the function of the vessel or the accomplishment of its mission, and must have a substantial connection to the vessel. The Court looked to Barret v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 781 F2d 1067 to determine that a substantial connection means spending more than 30% of employment aboard a vessel. In Alexander v. Express Energy Servs. Operating, L.P., the Fifth Circuit provided additional guidance on which duties have a substantial connection to a vessel. In sum, the Court determined that in order to qualify as a seaman, the employment must be spent aboard the vessel, not near it. The plaintiff in Alexander was a lead hand/operator in the plug and abandonment department, which plugged decommissioned oil wells on various platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. The Court determined that plaintiff did not sufficiently establish that he spent more than 30% of his time working aboard a vessel, as he testified that he worked alongside vessels the majority of the time. Accordingly, plaintiff was not considered a seaman and could not recover the remedies afforded under the Jones Act.
While this decision serves to provide additional guidelines as to seaman status, the legal determination will ultimately be on a case-by-case basis.
Alexander v. Express Energy Servs. Operating, L.P.