The status of a seaman in admiralty law provides maritime workers with special protections such as payment of wages, working conditions, and remedies for workplace injuries under the Jones Act and the doctrines of "unseaworthiness" and "maintenance and cure." Each of these remedies have the same criteria for the identifying the status of seaman. Many employers, however, are unaware if their employees are actually seamen. As a result, the employment status of a person injured in a maritime context sets the stage for the entire liability dispute.
The United States Supreme Court in Chadris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995), set forth two requirements for the determination of seaman status.
First, the employee's duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its missions.
Second, a seaman must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or an identifiable group of vessels) that is substantial in terms of both duration and nature. To establish a substantial connection, the inquiry into the nature of the employee's connection to the vessel must concentrate on whether the employee's duties take them to sea. In addition, courts apply a 30% rule of thumb when analyzing this requirement. In other words, if an employee spends more than 30% of his time working on or from a vessel or fleet of vessels, a substantial connection likely exists.
Judge Eldon Fallon of the Eastern District of Louisiana recently addressed the issue of who is a seaman under the Jones Act in Jermaine Jefferson v. Weeks Marine, Inc. et al, No. 240, slip. op. (E.D.La. Feb. 3, 2016). In this case, plaintiff worked in the position of deckhand on the dredge BORINGUEN for three months and was then assigned to work in defendant, Weeks Marine's shipyard. Plaintiff spent 82 days on the dredge in 2009 and 1,268 days in the shipyard between 2009 and 2014. Plaintiff estimated that he worked 30% of the time somewhere other than on land while assigned to work in the shipyard. Plaintiff asserted claims under the Jones Act, general maritime law for injuries allegedly sustained while loading various items onto a barge at the shipyard.
Judge Fallon noted that while a worker who spends less than about 30% of his time in the service of a vessel should not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act, this figure is just a guideline. As a result, courts must still examine the "total circumstances of an individual's employment" to determine "whether the worker in question is a member of the vessel's crew or simply a land-based employee who happens to be working on the vessel at a given time."
Citing Chandris, Judge Fallon noted that "when a maritime worker's basic assignment changes, his seaman status may change as well." Here, plaintiff had two distinct assignments: as a deckhand and at the shipyard. plaintiff also asserted that he had a second significant change of assignment in 2014 when he was required to participate in a "pipe raft project" and argued that only 2014 should be considered. The defendants on the other hand argued that one year's worth of time sheets was insufficient to fulfill the requirement that the court determine seaman status based on a maritime worker's "entire employment history." Judge Fallon was not persuaded that plaintiff's basic assignment changed when he began building pipe rafts. This was merely another task in his employment in the shipyard. As a result, Judge Fallon applied Chandris' 30% temporal analysis to Plaintiff's entire five-yard period working in the shipyard and found plaintiff only spent 8.44% of his time in the service of a vessel. Therefore, Judge Fallon held that plaintiff was not a Jones Act Seaman.