The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (“LHWCA”) and the Jones Act are the two statutory recovery schemes available to injured maritime workers. Under the Jones Act, a “seaman” is entitled to recover certain damages from his Jones Act employer. Under the LHWCA, a “longshoreman” recovers under a federally managed workers’ compensation program. The Jones Act employer remedy and the LHWCA workers’ compensation structure are a maritime employee’s only avenues to recovery against his or her employer. In addition to being the exclusive remedies available for seamen and longshoremen, the Jones Act and LHWCA remedies are mutually exclusive. Thus, accurately characterizing a worker as a seaman or a longshoreman is a vitally important initial step in both risk management planning and litigation response. Unfortunately, this important task is not always cut and dry.
The Supreme Court’s Jones Act Test
Three Supreme Court cases form the foundation of the Jones Act seaman status test. First, in McDermott Int’l, Inc. v. Wilander, the Court instructed that “[t]he key to seaman status is employment-related connection to a vessel in navigation.”[i] Next, in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, the Supreme Court refined the Wilander “substantial connection” test, adding two requirements for seaman status:
- an employee’s duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission; and
- a seaman must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both duration and nature.[ii]
Finally, in Harbor Tug and Barge Co. v. Papai, the Supreme Court further developed the second Chandris prong, highlighting the distinction between land-based and sea-based employees, and instructing that “the inquiry into the nature of an employee’s connection to the vessel must concentrate on whether the employee’s duties take him to sea.”[iii]
The Fifth Circuit, which oversees federal courts in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi has held that the first Chandris prong is “relatively easy” to satisfy, requiring only that the worker seeking seaman status show that he “does the ship’s work.”[iv] This “requirement is very broad, encompassing all who work at sea in the service of a ship.”[v] Generally, this merely requires looking to the vessel’s primary mission, and evaluating whether or not the putative seaman’s work furthers that mission. Importantly, contribution to the function or mission of the vessel does not require a worker to be involved in operation or navigation of the vessel.
While the first Chandris prong is relatively easy, the second prong has proven far more nuanced. Until recently, courts have focused on whether a worker faces the “perils of the sea” in answering the substantial connection prong.
Fifth Circuit Issues Sanchez
In 2021, the Fifth Circuit sought to add clarity to Chandris’ “substantial connection” prong, issuing its opinion in Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC.[vi] The Sanchez Court took a deep dive into Supreme Court precedence on Jones Act seaman status, concluding that the “perils of the sea” test was alone insufficient to determine whether a substantial connection existed. The Sanchez Court then distilled down various factual considerations from Supreme Court precedence into three inquiries that must be satisfied in addition to considering whether the worker was subject to the perils of the sea:
- Does the worker owe his allegiance to the vessel, rather than simply to a shoreside employer?
- Is the work sea-based or involve seagoing activity?
- Is the worker’s assignment to a vessel limited to performance of a discrete task after which the worker’s connection to the vessel ends, or does the worker’s assignment include sailing with the vessel from port to port?[vii]
Applying these inquires to its own facts, the Sanchez Court found that Mr. Sanchez was not a seaman because he “was not engaged in sea-based work that satisfied the requirement that he be substantially connected to a fleet of vessels in terms of the nature of his work.” In reaching that conclusion, the Sanchez Court evaluated the two separate jobs on which Mr. Sanchez was assigned to work as a welder on offshore oil rigs.
In one instance, the rig on which Mr. Sanchez worked was in port, “jacked-up with the barge deck level with the dock and a gangplank away from shore.”[viii] This work did not take Mr. Sanchez to sea or constitute work of a seagoing nature. Further, Mr. Sanchez’s work was discrete and transitory because he was not going to sail with the vessel after his work was completed.
In the second instance, the rig on which Mr. Sanchez worked was on the outer continental shelf awaiting repairs. Despite the fact that the vessel was offshore, the Sanchez Court held that because Mr. Sanchez was on the vessel to perform a discrete, individual job, and because there was no evidence suggesting that he planned to remain aboard after the job was completed, his tasks were merely transitory and did not qualify him for seaman status.[ix]
Texas Interpretation of Sanchez an Open Question
Though designed to clarify Fifth Circuit precedence on Jones Act seaman status, the Sanchez factors may have inadvertently muddied the waters. As pointed out by one Louisiana court applying Sanchez, it remains unclear whether the Sanchez inquiries are “mandatory elements” or merely “intended to be treated as indicia or factors to be weighed.”[x] Texas practitioners, like their Louisiana peers, have no clear answer either, as to date no Texas federal court has published an opinion applying Sanchez. Thus, to the extent helpful, Texas litigators should look to the analysis provided by Louisiana federal courts in crafting their arguments on seaman status. While litigators seeking to determine an injured worker’s seaman status can use the newly delineated factors to frame their arguments in novel ways, it will take time to see whether Sanchez’s goal of clarifying Jones Act seaman status was accomplished.
* For additional commentary on Louisiana federal courts’ interpretation of Sanchez, see our forthcoming post on the Kean Miller Louisiana Law Blog.
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[i] 498 U.S. 337, 355 (1991).
[ii] 515 U.S. 347, 368 (1995).
[iii] 520 U.S. 548, 555 (1997).
[iv] Becker v. Tidewater, Inc., 335 F.3d 376, 387-88 (5th Cir. 2003).
[v] Id. at 388.
[vi] 997 F.3d 564, 573 (5th Cir. 2021).
[viii] Id. at 575.
[ix] Id. at 576.
[x] Sanchez v. American Pollution Control Corp., 542 F.Supp.3d 446, 457 (E.D. La. 2021).