May 24, 2021

Seaman Status test is better defined by Fifth Circuit

Written by: Kari M. Rosamond

The Fifth Circuit recently ruled upon yet another case with the hopes of better defining seaman status under the Jones Act.  It is well settled law that a plaintiff seeking seaman status under the Jones Act must satisfy the two-prong test, namely, 1) his duties must contribute to the vessel's function or mission and 2) his connection to the vessel must be substantial in nature and duration.[1]

In the case, Gilbert Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, L.L.C.[2] the Fifth Circuit focused on the satisfaction of the “nature” element of the second part of the two-prong test.  Plaintiff Sanchez worked for Smart Fabricators, a contract welding company, for a total of 67 days as a contract welder when he was injured.  He spent 61 days on two different jack-up vessels owned by Enterprise Offshore Drilling LLC (“Enterprise”), Smart Fabricator’s customer. 

Of those 67 days, Sanchez performed welding work for 48 days (approximately 72% of his employment) on the ENTERPRISE WFD 350 which was connected to a gangplank located a short distance from a pier.  He also worked 13 days (approximately 19% of his employment) on the ENTERPRISE 263, a jack-up vessel located in the Gulf of Mexico on the Outer Continental Shelf.  While aboard the ENTERPRISE 263, Sanchez fell sustaining injuries and subsequently filed suit.     

The district court concluded that Sanchez failed to establish seaman status because he could not satisfy a “substantial connection in terms of the nature of his work.”[3]  Sanchez appealed, and the panel originally held that based upon “binding Circuit precedent,”[4] namely In re Endeavor Marine, Inc.[5] and Naquin v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C.[6], Sanchez satisfied the nature element of the seaman status test and thus, was a seaman.[7] However, based upon further questioning, the Fifth Circuit took the instant case en banc to consider whether its decision was in line with Supreme Court precedent. 

The question became focused on the second part of the conjunctive Chandris inquiry, namely whether Sanchez’s employment-related connection to a fleet of vessels was “substantial in terms of … nature (the functional prong).”[8]  In evaluating the nature element, the Fifth Circuit expounded upon Chandris, stating that simply asking whether the worker is subject to the “perils of the sea” is not enough to resolve the nature element and thus, the following additional inquiries should be made:

  1. Does the worker owe his allegiance to the vessel, rather than simply to a shoreside employer?
  2. Is the work sea-based or involve seagoing activity?
  3. (a) Is the worker’s assignment to a vessel limited to performance of a discreet task after which the worker’s connection to the vessel ends, or (b) Does the worker’s assignment include sailing with the vessel from port to port or location to location?[9]

With respect to his work on WFD 350, Sanchez was not engaged in “seagoing activity;” his duties did not “take him to sea;” his work on the docked vessel was not “of seagoing nature;” and after he finished his work at the dock, “he was not going to sail with the vessel” after he finished his work.[10] Although Sanchez’s work on the Enterprise 263, was conducted while the vessel was located on the Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”), Sanchez’s work only comprised 13 days which amounted to less than 20% of his total employment.   Sanchez’s work, “even though he was located on the OCS, was performed on a discrete, individual job” and when the job was over, Sanchez would have no further connection to the vessel.[11]  Because Sanchez had a “transitory or sporadic” connection to a vessel, he could not satisfy the nature element of the second prong of the seaman status test.[12] 

The Fifth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff was a “transitory worker” more akin to a longshore worker who performs discreet, transient jobs when a vessel is at port and thus, was not a seaman.[13] 

[1] Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 115 S.Ct. 2172, 132 L.Ed.2d 314 (1995).

[2] No. 19-20506 (5th Cir. ­­­May 11, 2021) (en banc) (Judge Davis).

[3] Sanchez v. Enter. Offshore Drilling LLC, 376 F.Supp. 3d 726, 732 (S.D. Tex. 2019)

[4] No. 19-20506 (5th Cir. ­­­May 11, 2021) (en banc) (Judge Davis).

[5] 234 F.3d 287 (5th Cir. 2000)

[6] 744 F.3d 927 (5th Cir. 2014)

[7] In re Endeavor Marine and Naquin focused on whether the plaintiffs were subject to the “perils of the sea” as the primary test of satisfying the nature element.  However, the Fifth Circuit noted that this was not the sole consideration. See, e.g., No. 19-20506 (5th Cir. ­­­May 11, 2021) (en banc) (Judge Davis).

[8] Roberts v. Cardinal Servs., Inc., 266 F.3d 368, 374 (5th Cir. 2001)

[9] No. 19-20506 (5th Cir. ­­­May 11, 2021) (en banc) (Judge Davis).

[10] Id. citing Harbor Tug and Barge Co. v. Papai, 520 U.S. 548, 559 (1997). 

[11] No. 19-20506 (5th Cir. ­­­May 11, 2021) (en banc) (Judge Davis).

[12] Papai, 520 U.S. at 559-60. 

[13] No. 19-20506 (5th Cir. ­­­May 11, 2021) (en banc) (Judge Davis).