The Perils of the Seaman Status– 5th Circuit Revised Seaman Status Test

The Fifth Circuit’s recent en banc decision in Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, L.L.C., No. 19 20506,2021 WL 1882565 (5th Cir. May 11, 2021) upends 20 years of its own precedent and reformulates the seaman status analysis.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit was a welder working on a jack up-rig. Sanchez had been onboard the second of two vessels in a fleet for nearly two weeks when he tripped over a pipe that had been welded above floor level. Sanchez sued under the Jones Act, alleging that the Jones Act employer failed to provide a safe workplace.

In the decisional hopscotch indicative of the ambiguity surrounding the seaman status doctrine, the 5th circuit reversed itself before unanimously concurring to en banc consideration. The en banc court ultimately found that, to accord with Supreme Court decisions from 1991, 1995, and 1997, “simply asking whether the worker was subject to the ‘perils of the sea’ is not enough.” Instead, the court added three factors to consider in addition to the pre-existing analysis:

  • Whether the worker owes their allegiance to the vessel or to a shoreside employer;
  • Whether the work is sea-based or involves seagoing activity;
  • And whether the worker leaves after the completion of a “discrete task” or continues to sail with the vessel “from port to port or location to location”

In considering the factors, the en banc court ruled that the plaintiff, a primarily land-based welder who was working two discrete, transient repair jobs was not a seaman because he was not engaged in sea-based work and did not truly expose him to the unique dangers of seafaring work sufficient to be “substantially connected” to the vessels.

The effect of the decision is to narrow the scope of claimants who qualify as Jones Act Seaman. Nevertheless, the decision signals that the determination will still turn on a fact-intensive analysis regarding the nature of the seaman’s work and their connection to the vessel. Thus, it is critical that those injured in the course of maritime employment hire lawyers familiar with these issues and how to properly present the facts of your claim.

Abraham Watkins successfully argued one of the first summary judgment motions under the new analysis. 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 longest-standing personal injury firm in Texas. Our attorneys have handled many maritime injury claims. Contact us today by Calling 713-396-3964 or toll-free at 1-800-594-4884.