Jones Act seaman status

The Jones Act means different things to different people. For a fleet owner, the most important aspect may be the legal requirements to construct vessels in the U.S. For a mate or deckhand on a towboat, it is how the Jones Act protects them in the event of an injury.

Just what constitutes a Jones Act “seaman” continues to keep the courts on their toes. So, just who is a Jones Act seaman? Courts generally cite the two-prong test used in Chandris v. Latsis , which requires that the employee’s duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or accomplishment of its mission, and that the seaman must have a connection to a vessel (or group of vessels) in navigation that is substantial in terms of duration and nature.

This test seems pretty straightforward. However, in recent cases the courts have had to decide whether an engineer on a dredge or galley workers on a dormitory barge were Jones Act seamen. Such cases have also raised issues as to what constitutes a vessel.

It happened again in February in Scheuring v. Traylor Brothers Inc . The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a lower court’s decision that denied seaman status to a crane operator on a barge. The crane operator was injured while assisting during the lift of a 180-lb. boarding ramp that had fallen into the water.

The district court held that the crane operator was not a seaman because his employment was not substantially connected to the vessel. However, the appeals court pointed out that the crane operator had at times helped move the barge by fleeting (heaving back and forth on its anchor lines) for repositioning to work on the next set of piles. He also occasionally handled anchor lines, weighed and dropped anchors, stood lookout, monitored the marine band radio, and spliced wire and rope.

The appeals court felt that the traditional nature of the duties performed by the crane operator and the movement of the vessel was a basis for reconsideration of seaman status. The court said that the movements of the vessel, even if minor, and the sea-based duties of the plaintiff, although ancillary to his core responsibility as a crane operator, raise genuine issues of material fact that warrant jury consideration. The appeals court, therefore, reversed the lower court decision that granted summary judgment to the barge owner-operator.

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