Worker Was Not A Seaman, Could Not Satisfy the 30% Rule

Earlier this week, the Court of Appeals of Maryland discussed “seaman status,” and the distinction between seaman and land-based maritime workers.  The inquiry arose in the context of a state court negligence action.  The injured worker was diagnosed with silicosis, and eventually died from his illness.  But was the decedent a seaman?  The court’s introduction succinctly answered the seaman status question:

Maritime law has long recognized the “special hazards and disadvantages to which they who go down to sea in ships are subjected,” especially exposure to “the perils of the sea … with little opportunity to avoid those dangers or to discover and protect themselves from them.”  When maritime workers at sea suffer sickness or injury, they are entirely at the mercy of their employer, and it is often said that they are “wards of admiralty.”  Federal law provides certain rights and protections to compensate for those risks.  One such measure is the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104, which provides a seaman with a cause of action against the seaman’s employer for injuries incurred within the scope of employment.

Who is a “seaman”?  This is a recurring question in the case law under the Jones Act.  The Supreme Court offered guidance in three decisions in the 1990s, but subsequent lower court decisions have resulted in a tempest of varying, and often conflicting, interpretations.  Although as a state court we do not speak authoritatively on this issue, it is our task in this case to discern what we can from these decisions.

In the complaint under the Jones Act that commenced this case, William S. Dize alleged that he was injured as a result of the negligence by his employer, Respondent Association of Maryland Pilots (the “Association”).  Whether that claim was properly made under the Jones Act depends on whether Mr. Dize was a “seaman” at the time of the alleged negligence.  To distinguish seamen from land-based workers, the Supreme Court has adopted a “rule of thumb” that a seaman must ordinarily have spent at least 30 percent of work time in service of a vessel in navigation.  We hold, consistent with the purpose of the Jones Act and guidance of the Supreme Court, that the time Mr. Dize spent maintaining vessels that were dockside or ashore is not to be considered and, accordingly, that the lower courts correctly concluded that he was not a seaman.

The work duties that did not count towards the 30% threshold included the following:

Mr. Dize’s time spent maintaining the Association’s vessels while they were docked or onshore at the Solomons Island Transfer Station (as well as his time spent performing upkeep of the station property) does not count toward the 30 percent threshold for the same reasons. As in the cases cited above, these duties—performing overhauls and refits of vessels; painting; sanding; changing propellers, rotors, shafts, and rub rails; replacing zinc anodes; cleaning the boat interiors; and fueling—did not subject him to the “caprices of open water,” and, in the case of an emergency, “onshore assistance was never far away.” During his commission of this work, there would never be a “need to abandon ship” or “survive exposure to the elements until help arrives.” His proximity to shore meant that there was no danger of unusual “delay or inconvenience in being transported to medical attention for injuries.” This work plainly did not subject Mr. Dize to the perils of the sea, and therefore did not comprise sea-based activities that should have been counted in the Circuit Court’s duration analysis.

Dize v. Ass’n of Md. Pilots, — A3d —-, 2013 WL 5299548 (Md. 2013).