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Seaman Status and Punitive Damages for Unseawortihness Claim Updates

In Alexander v. Express Energy Services Operating, the U.S. Fifth Circuit further refined the seaman status test, emphasizing the amount of work a plaintiff actually performed on a vessel, and concluding that a worker who spends less than about 30 percent of his time in the service of a vessel in navigation, should not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act. The Fifth Circuit stated that to prove that he was a seaman, the plaintiff, Alexander, must prove that: (1) he contributed to the function of a vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission, and (2) he was assigned permanently to the vessel or spent a substantial part of his total work time-30% -aboard the vessel or an identifiable fleet of vessels.

Alexander was injured while working on a platform that had a liftboat positioned next to the platform with a catwalk connecting the vessel to the platform. A permanent crane was located on the liftboat, while all other equipment, including wireline equipment, was located on the platform. Alexander was injured when a wireline from the crane snapped, dropping a bridge plug/tool combination which had been suspended a foot above the deck, which then rolled onto his foot.

The undisputed summary judgment evidence showed that approximately 65% of Alexander's jobs involved a fixed platform only, without the help of an adjacent vessel. It was not sufficient that Alexander was merely near a vessel on more than 30% of his jobs or that he performed some incidental work on a vessel on those jobs. Instead, to be a seaman, a plaintiff must show that they actually worked on a vessel at least 30% of the time.

No Punitive Damages for Unseaworthiness Claim

Recently, on Monday May 18, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the writs of certiorari in McBride v. Estis Well Service. As a result, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit's holdings that a seaman's recovery for unseaworthiness under the Jones Act or the general maritime law is limited to pecuniary losses, which does not include punitive damages, stands.

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