Abraham Watkins Scores Victory Under New 5th Circuit Maritime Precedent

In Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators, a unanimous, en banc decision of the 5th Circuit upended existing precedent in greatly narrowing the critical threshold issue of who qualifies as a seaman under the Jones Act.  As one of the leading personal injury firms in the nation, and the longest operating in Texas, Abraham Watkins attorney Benny Agosto Jr. and another attorney were up to the challenge of arguing one of the first motions under the new legal standard, winning a favorable result for our client against the odds.

The claim arose in the context of the response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Tens of thousands of people, including our client, participated in the mitigation and recovery effort. Operations were performed onshore and at sea. Some of the participants, who were initially assigned to onshore duty, were assigned to offshore containment and remediation missions. Our client was employed in the remediation mission for a total of 23 days. Her first 17 days were exclusively shore based. She was then reassigned to the offshore remediation efforts. Thereafter, she spent 6 consecutive days working offshore on a 27-foot commercial fishing vessel, laying and hauling oil-trapping absorbent boom, before sustaining serious injuries in the course of her service to the vessel.

            A defendant sought summary judgment, arguing that our client was not a seaman. They claimed that her connection to the vessel was not substantial in nature. Specifically, the defendant claimed that the plaintiff could not satisfy the nature or duration of work analysis under then existing precedent as she had only worked offshore for 6 of her 23-day stint with the defendant. Abraham Watkin’s attorneys countered that her reassignment to the vessel constituted a permanent and fundamental change of status and thus her employment should be considered under the reassignment or change of assignment exception and put forth testimonial and documentary evidence showing that her duties fundamentally changed with reassignment, the assignment would have lasted months, and that her service to the vessel was substantial.  

            On the same day that Abraham Watkins filed its opposition, the 5th Circuit handed down Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators, necessitating immediate supplemental briefing under the altered law. In overruling Naquin v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C. and partially overruling In re Endeavor Marine, Inc., Smart Fabricators disposes of the perils of the sea framework of the nature prong of the seaman status analysis and put forth three additional factors to substantially narrow the analysis:

  • Is the work sea-based or involve seagoing activity?
  • (a) 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 (b) Does the worker’s assignment including sailing with the vessel from port to port or location to location?
  • Does the worker owe his allegiance to the vessel, rather than simply to a shoreside employer?

In his 19 page reasoned opinion, the Honorable Judge Carl Barbier for the Eastern District of Louisiana Federal District Court ruled that the claimant satisfied the narrowed analysis. 

Judge Barbier found that there was sufficient evidence showing a fundamental reassignment to offshore duty warranting analysis under the change of assignment exception and that the evidence presented established a sufficient duration even though the claimant was only on the vessel for 6 days.  The court then turned to the nature inquiry under Smart Fabricators.

Under the “sea-based” factor, Judge Barbier ruled that evidence that the claimant’s duties required that she work at sea for 11-12 hours a day and travel to various locations in the Gulf of Mexico was sufficiently sea-based or involved sea-going activity. In the face of defendant’s argument that her work was transient and discrete, Plaintiff put forth evidence that her duties to the vessel were the same on all 6 days she was assigned, that her mission was effectively co-extensive with the vessel, and that, but for her injury, she would have continued working on the vessel until its remediation mission ended. This, the judge ruled, was sufficient under the second factor.

On the final factor—allegiance to the vessel—the Judge found that the evidence that the claimant took orders from the captain of the vessel (who was not an employee of the defendant-movant), was trained by the crew, and would assist in the maintenance of the vessel satisfied this factor too.

The court also concluded that the claimant’s connection to the vessel exposed her to the perils of the sea, to the extent that factor remains salient under the new standard outlined in Smart Fabricators.

In sum, the court offered the first glimpse of the analysis under the now controlling law on the critical seaman status threshold issue for maritime claims brought under the Jones Act. Abraham Watkins attorney Benny Agosto Jr. and another Abraham Watkins attorney are honored to be representing our client against British Petroleum, American Pollution Control Corp, United States Environmental Services and the other defendants arrayed against her in this tragic maritime accident. On behalf of all those injured at sea by the negligent conduct of others, Abraham Watkins leads the way.

If you or a loved has been seriously injured or killed while working offshore, find an attorney experienced and proven in handling maritime claims. Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner is the oldest personal injury firm in Texas. Our attorneys have handed many maritime injury claims. Contact us today by Calling 713-396-3964 or toll free at 1-800-594-4884.