The Jones Act provides compensation to seaman who suffer a work-related injury in a maritime occupation or their families. But a federal court of appeals case could restrict the type of workers eligible for compensation under maritime law.
The plaintiff in this case was a welder who was injured by tripping on a pipeline welded to the deck of an offshore platform or a jack-up rig. His employer, a Texas business, disputed that he was a seaman who could seek Jones Act compensation.
Workers are seaman eligible for Jones Act relief if they meet a two-part test established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995. First, the worker’s duties must contribute to a vessel’s function or mission. Next, the worker’s connection to a vessel must be substantial in length and nature.
The Supreme Court also addressed the type of duties that are substantial in nature in a 1997 case. The Court ruled that substantial duties depend on whether the seaman’s duties take them to sea.
In this case, the parties did not dispute that the plaintiff’s duties contributed to the vessel’s function or mission. His service met the duration test because he spent 65 out of 67 workdays aboard this jack-up rig.
An appeal in this case was taken to the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals covering Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. A three-judge panel first ruled that the plaintiff did not have a substantial connection to this vessel and ruled against him.
Shortly afterward and in a rare move, however, this panel withdrew its ruling. A different three-judge panel asked for all the judges of this appeals court to hear and rule on this appeal. This indicates that this case may be especially important.
Legal experts predict that this court may address ambiguity on who is a seaman covered by the Jones Act and what is considered a vessel under that law. Its ruling could also substantially affect shore-based workers who work on inland vessels that do not expose them to the dangers of the sea.