Withdrawal of Recent Jones Act Decision Leaves Maritime Workers in Limbo

Congress intended for the Jones Act to give extra protection to maritime workers. One of the benefits for workers is that under the Jones Act they can file a negligence claim against the vessel owner, master/employer, or fellow crewmembers, as opposed to a workers’ compensation or Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation claim. However, a recent decision by the 5th Circuit to withdraw its opinion in a case finding a welder on a jack-up rig not be a “seaman” for the purposes of the act leaves the rights of many oil workers unclear.

Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas

The plaintiff, in this case, is Gilbert Sanchez. He was working as a welder for SmartFab on a variety of different jobs. The company moved him to various locations, inland and offshore, as his services were necessary. In total, Mr. Sanchez was working for SmartFab for 67 days at the time of his injury.

Most of Sanchez’s workdays were spent as a welder on a “jacked-up” rig that was adjacent to an inland pier, and he went home from work every evening. Mr. Sanchez spent most of the rest of his time working on a rig out at sea, on the Outer Continental Shelf.

At the time of his injury, Mr. Sanchez was on the rig at sea. He was working on the deck when he tripped over a pipe welded to the deck. He filed a personal injury lawsuit against his employer seeking damages under the Jones Act.

Was the Injured Worker a Seaman?

SmartFab contested the suit. When the legal action was in federal district court, the company filed a motion asking the court to rule in its favor because Mr. Sanchez did not have the legal right to file a lawsuit. Specifically, the major issue was whether Mr. Sanchez was entitled to the protections of the Jones Act.

The reason why this is an issue is that the Jones Act works to protect people classified as “seamen.” Even though Mr. Sanchez was working offshore, on a rig out at sea, when the accident happened, the company claimed that he did not meet the legal definition of a seaman in the law.

The test that courts use to decide whether someone is a seaman has two parts to it. They are:

  • The employee’s duties must “contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission,” and;
  • The employee “must have a connection to a vessel in navigation that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.”

Because Mr. Sanchez spent most of his time working on a rig that was not offshore, his employer argued that he did not have a substantial connection to the offshore rig, even though that is where he was hurt. The District Court agreed with the company.

Fifth Circuit Determines Sanchez is Seaman, but Withdraws Opinion

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (which serves as the appeals court for federal courts in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas) reversed the District Court’s holding.

The first way that Mr. Sanchez could have qualified as a seaman was to spend 30% or more of his time at sea. He did not meet this test. It did not matter that his injury occurred at sea. The Jones Act excludes people who only have a small connection to the sea under this test.

Here, the Court explored a second way an injured worker can qualify as a seaman, by analyzing the nature of his work. The main question the court asked was whether he was “exposed to the perils of the sea” in performing his job.  Even if an employee is working at a docked vessel, he or she can still be exposed to the perils of the sea. That is exactly what the Fifth Circuit initially ruled here in Mr. Sanchez’s case. Even though Mr. Sanchez worked onshore and went back home every night, the Fifth Circuit found that he was exposed to the perils of working on a maritime vessel and thus qualified to file a lawsuit under the Jones Act.

Why Is This Case Important?

Employers do not like to be sued for negligence. They prefer that injured workers be forced to proceed through the workers’ compensation process, which provides limited financial compensation to workers when compared to compensation available under the Jones Act.

On the flip side, employees who are qualified to bring negligence claims under the Jones Act stand a better chance of being fully and fairly compensated for their injuries. The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, like other types of workers’ compensation laws, do not permit injured workers to recover compensation for pain and suffering. However, pain and suffering is often the most important right of recovery in personal injury claims and often require full and fair compensation far in excess of “economic” damages, such as medical bills.

Possible Damages and Compensation for Seamen

An injured seaman such as Mr. Sanchez has a right to full and fair compensation for his injuries and damages, including:

  • Physical pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Lost wages (both in the present and future)
  • Medical bills, past, and future
  • Loss of consortium

The bottom line is that an injured seaman is entitled to potentially recover more compensation under the Jones Act than under the Longshore and Harbor’s Workers’ Act and/or a traditional workers’ compensation claim. It should be noted that in October 2020 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the SmartFab’s petition for rehearing “en banc”, which means the Fifth Circuit opinion discussed above will be reconsidered by all of the Judges in the Fifth Circuit, instead of just the three-Judge panel that issued the original Fifth Circuit Opinion. Should the en banc court affirm the panel’s decision, this case will be a win for all maritime workers whose jobs expose them to the perils of the sea.

Contact a Biloxi, MS Personal Injury Lawyer Today

Attorney Christopher Van Cleave believes in fighting hard for his clients, especially when their employer or other large corporations are trying to deny them the financial compensation that they deserve.  The issues surrounding offshore injuries are complex and require an attorney that is experienced in Maritime Law and up to date on all the developments and requirements for Jones Act eligibility. Contact Van Cleave Law today online or call us at (228)432-7826 to set up your free initial consultation. You owe us nothing unless we are successful in making a recovery in your case.