The workboat industry has various laws that deal with the rights of maritime workers. Sometimes there’s a tendency to associate a particular law with a given setting. For instance, if the setting is a shipyard or cargo terminal, look to the Longshore Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. For deepwater oil rigs, look to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. For a deckhand on a towboat, look to the Jones Act.
But sometimes it’s necessary to look at factors beyond mere physical setting. This was shown by a recent case in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that involved a welder on a jackup drill rig. Here, the mere fact that the injury arose on a vessel did not automatically mean it was a Jones Act case. The welder was injured when he tripped on a pipe.
During the time of his employment, the rig was jacked up and stood adjacent to a pier. The welder worked day shifts and went home in the evenings. The actual facts were more complicated. They involved closely examining daily time logs for time worked on two different rigs. The welder sued under the Jones Act.
The district court ruled that the welder was not a seaman for the purposes of the Jones Act. On appeal, the higher court looked to the legal test applied in the Supreme Court case Chandris Inc. v. Latsis. In that case, the employee’s duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission, and the employee must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.
But the court also looked at additional elements. Does the worker owe his allegiance to the vessel, rather than simply to a shoreside employer? Is the work sea-based or does it 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 or location to location?
The welder did pass the duration test. He spent about 90% of his time on the rig. But in applying the additional elements, his work was not deemed to be seagoing in nature. This shows that maritime law can apply different legal tests to figure out which law applies in a given situation. And these legal tests do not always remain static. Instead, they can evolve with developments in case law.