On Jan. 19, 2006, in Holmes v. Atlantic Sounding Co. , the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided whether a cook could be entitled to Jones Act claims against her employer after she was injured aboard a quarters barge.
The barge was basically a floating dormitory used to house and feed employees during dredging projects. The court examined whether or not the quarters barge could be considered a vessel.
As reported in the May 2005 Legal Talk (“High court clarifies legal definition of vessels,” by Daniel J. Hoerner), in Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co. , the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the legal definition of a “vessel” to include floating structures that are “capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.” The court’s decision has a practical effect on vessel owners throughout the maritime industry, potentially expanding the liabilities and duties a vessel owner could owe to its employees.
In order to be considered a seaman under the Jones Act, employees must demonstrate that his or her duties contribute to the function of a vessel or the accomplishment of its mission. Thus, a vessel is a prerequisite to Jones Act seaman status. Seaman status may entitle an employee to special remedies under the Jones Act and the general maritime law of the U.S.
Relying on Stewart , the Fifth Circuit Court found that the class of waterborne structures that are vessels for Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act and Jones Act purposes is much broader than had been previously held. As long as a waterborne structure is “practically capable” of being used for transportation on navigable waters, it is a vessel. The court had no trouble concluding that the quarters barge was a vessel because it was used several times to transport equipment from the shore to the dredge site. Even though the barge was totally incapable of self propulsion, it was moved long distances by a tug and capable of navigation.
Although the court did not decide whether the injured plaintiff was a seaman for Jones Act purposes, the expanded definition of the term “vessel” has real world implications for vessel owners and employers of workers who may not have received seamen status before now.