In a recent Jones Act case, Sara Herrera v. 7R Charter Limited, No. 19-10605 (11th Cir. 2019), the court makes clear that a seafaring employee need not necessarily forgo the benefits of Jones Act coverage simply because she mixes elements of business with personal pleasure.
Sara Herrera v. 7R Charter Limited – Background
For the chief stewardess of a luxury motor yacht, taking your family on the yacht’s small tender boat to go get lunch at a bayside restaurant might seem less like business and more like pleasure. That’s exactly what happened in a Jones Act action that a yacht’s chief stewardess brought against the yacht owner, claiming that she was hurt in the “course and scope of her employment.” But the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the waters surrounding the issue were a bit murkier than the trial court initially believed.
The facts are these: Ms. Sara Herrera was the chief stewardess on the private charter yacht M/Y OLGA, owned by 7R Charters. She, the captain, and several other crewmembers were on call 24/7, 365 days out of the year (except for vacations). The crew of the OLGA, headed by Captain Bernard Calot, was small. Though Ms. Herrera was a chief stewardess by title, she often helped out maintaining the interior of the vessel, handling lines while docking, and operating the yacht’s tender.
7R Charters rented Captain Calot’s personal boat as a tender for the OLGA. The tender was a smaller vessel that the OLGA carried to ferry passengers to and from the yacht. It was on this tender that Ms. Herrera was injured.
The day before the accident, Captain Calot picked the tender up from a mechanic. The next morning, Captain Calot and Ms. Herrera took the newly-revamped tender out for sea trials. They brought along Ms. Herrera’s daughter and two friends who were visiting from Mexico. Captain Calot and Ms. Herrrera sat beside each other, out of uniform, while performing the sea trials. They talked with their guests and listened to music. Captain Calot never charged 7R Charter rent for this day’s cruise.
After the trials, they and their guests decided to stop at a bayside marina for lunch. The tender cruised in a no-wake zone as Ms. Herrera was standing at the bow, handling the lines in preparation for docking. But another vessel darted in front of their boat, kicking up a large wake that bowled Ms. Herrera over and knocked her unconscious.
The Lawsuit and Court Ruling
Ms. Herrera sued 7R under the Jones Act, claiming that she was hurt on the job and that 7R had to pay for her injuries. To recover under this theory, she needed to prove that she was injured while acting in the course and scope of her employment. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed the case on summary judgment, finding that Ms. Herrera was not acting as 7R’s employee while she was taking the tender out for sea trials or docking at the marina for lunch.
Eleventh Circuit Reversal
The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, and reversed the lower court’s dismissal—saying that a court could have reasonably found that Ms. Herrera was acting in the course and scope of her employment. The standard for determining whether someone was acting in the course and scope of their employment was whether their conduct was furthering their employer’s interests. Even actions that are incidental to Ms. Herrera’s work might be in its “course and scope” if 7R could have reasonably foreseen the act and if Ms. Herrera could have reasonably believed the act would benefit 7R.
The Eleventh Circuit reversed the lower court’s finding that Ms. Herrera and Captain Calot were operating the tender solely for pleasure. The two seafarers—along with Ms. Herrera’s family—were conducting a sea trial of the tender that 7R rented for use on its vessel. Ms. Herrera’s duties often included operating the tender for passengers. Even if Ms. Herrera personally benefitted from using the tender that day, and even if 7R never paid rent for the sea trials that day, it was still in 7R’s interests to have a crew that was experienced in operating the tender. Thus, 7R still benefitted from having the crew of the OLGA put its tender through a sea trial.
Ultimately, Ms. Herrera’s case will return to a lower court and the parties will gather additional evidence to determine whether she was hurt while acting as 7R’s employee. But the court makes it clear that a seafaring employee need not necessarily forgo the benefits of Jones Act coverage simply because she mixes some elements of business with some elements of personal pleasure.