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Jones Act Seaman Status Tested for Shipyard Worker

In Jefferson v. Weeks Marine, Inc., et al., C.A. No. 15-240 (E.D. La. 2/3/16), a district court in the Eastern District of Louisiana recently ruled that a land-based yard worker who was injured aboard a barge did not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act because he failed to satisfy the temporal requirements for seaman status. A 2014 Fifth Circuit decision, Naquin v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C., 744 F.3d 927 (5th Cir. 2014), arguably expanded the scope of Jones Act status for land-based workers, especially those working in a shipyard context. Yet, in ruling on the issue of seaman status in Jefferson, the district court declined to rely on Naquin, instead focusing on the “substantial connection” test first articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Chandris v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 354 (1995).

The plaintiff in Jefferson, Jermaine Jefferson (“Jefferson”), worked in a Houma shipyard both on land and on vessels over a five-year period. In 2014, the year he was injured, he estimated that he spent 30% of his time “somewhere other than land” while working in the Houma yard, including time spent on various barges and dredges moored at the Houma yard. On the day he was injured, Jefferson was injured on the deck of a barge. In his lawsuit, Jefferson alleged that he was a seaman under the Jones Act because he was performing work of a maritime nature. The defendants filed for summary judgment on the basis that Jefferson did not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act.

In deciding the issue, the district court first noted the following applicable standard for finding seaman status: (1) duties contributing to the function and/or accomplishment of mission of a vessel in navigation (or identifiable group of vessels); and (2) a connection to a vessel (or identifiable group of vessels) that was substantial both in nature and duration. As the district court explained, the “substantial connection” inquiry includes a temporal element. The Fifth Circuit has adopted a “rule of thumb” requiring that a worker spend at least 30% of his time in the service of a vessel in navigation in order to qualify as a seaman. In focusing on whether an employee spends 30% of his time aboard a vessel, courts generally look to the “total circumstances of an individual’s employment.” As a general principle, when a maritime worker’s basic assignment changes, his seaman status may change as well.

At issue was what period of time should be examined when determining Jefferson’s seaman status: the entire period of time he was assigned to the Houma yard or just the calendar year of 2014. Jefferson argued in opposition to the motion for summary judgment that, during the calendar year of 2014, his work assignment changed in such a way that he was now performing more than 30% of his work aboard vessels. The court noted that the issue was not whether one year’s worth of work history was enough to constitute a “substantial connection.” Instead, the issue was properly framed as whether Jefferson’s work aboard vessels in 2014 constituted a significant change in his employment assignment.

Analyzing Jefferson’s case, the court held that it was required to analyze Jefferson’s entire employment history while working at the Houma yard. The court found that the change in Jefferson’s work in 2014 was not a change in basic assignment but rather “was merely another task of his employment at Weeks’ Houma yard.” Jefferson was not assigned a new work location nor did he receive an “employment status change authorization.” The court, therefore, conducted its 30% temporal analysis based on Jefferson’s entire five-year period working at the Houma yard and held that Jefferson was not a Jones Act seaman because only 8% of his work during that time was aboard vessels.

In the wake of Naquin, the Jefferson case is instructive as a reminder that a shipyard worker must still satisfy the temporal requirements of Chandris independent of any expansion in Jones Act seaman status arguably provided by the Fifth Circuit in Naquin. In addition, Jefferson provides some guidance of what courts will look to when determining whether an employee has undergone a change in “work assignment” for purposes of analyzing the second prong of Chandris (i.e., a change in work location, a formal acknowledge of change in status has been made by the employer, etc.). We will continue to monitor the effect of Naquin in the district courts, particularly with respect to the possible expansion of Jones Act seaman status.

© 2020 Jones Walker LLPNational Law Review, Volume VI, Number 75


About this Author

Hansford P. Wogan, Jones Walker, Admiralty Matter Attorney, Personal Injury Lawyer

Hansford (“Ford”) P. Wogan is an associate in the firm's Admiralty & Maritime Practice Group and practices from the New Orleans office. His practice is primarily litigation-oriented with a focus on maritime personal injury/death and oilfield defense, including claims under General Maritime Law, the Jones Act, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. He also handles a wide range of issues involving marine insurance coverage, claims for and against limitation of liability, oil pollution response and liability,...