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Maritime Update: 5th Circuit Decides Sanchez is Not a Seaman

Bill Schwartz -  Posted on by Baldwin, Haspel, Burke & Mayer

Today the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the en banc (entire court) case of “Gilbert Sanchez versus Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC” and determined the plaintiff did not have a substantial connection to a vessel or fleet of vessels, and therefore was not a seaman.

THE FACTS:

The plaintiff, Gilbert Sanchez, was employed as a land-based welder by Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC (“SmartFab”). Smartfab did steel fabrication, repairs to drilling equipment, and general contract welding work. SmartFab’s work is performed to meet the demands of its customers on land and sometimes on jack-up drilling barges. The issues in this case revolve around Sanchez’s work for SmartFab on two jack-up barges owned by SmartFab’s customer, Enterprise Offshore Drilling LLC (“Enterprise”).

Sanchez worked for SmartFab for a total of 67 days between August 2017 and August 2018. Six of those days were spent working on welding jobs either on land or vessels that are irrelevant to his status as a seaman because they were not owned or controlled by Enterprise. Sanchez spent the remaining 61 days – those pertinent to our inquiry – on two different jack-up drilling rigs owned by Enterprise: the Enterprise WFD 350 and the Enterprise 263.

Sanchez worked on the Enterprise jack-up barge WFD 350 for 48-days doing welding work on a discrete repair job. The entire time he worked on this vessel, it was jacked-up so that the deck of the barge was level with Gabby’s Dock in Sabine Pass, Texas, and separated from the dock by a gangplank. Sanchez could take two steps on the gangplank, and he was ashore. He commuted from his home to the vessel daily. His time on the WFD 350 comprised approximately 72% of his total work time with SmartFab.

Sanchez worked 13-days on one other Enterprise vessel, the Enterprise jack-up barge 263. His work on this vessel comprised approximately 19% of his time in SmartFab’s employment. When Sanchez was dispatched to the Enterprise 263 in July 2018, it was located in West Cameron Block 38 on the Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”). He was sent as part of a SmartFab crew that was contracted to perform repairs necessary to get the vessel in condition to satisfy requirements of the American Bureau of Shipping (“ABS”), the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (“BSEE”), and the Coast Guard, so that the rig could begin drilling operations at a new drilling site on the OCS. Sanchez was aboard the rig when it was moved by tugboats to the new drilling location, South Timbalier Block 125 on the OCS. Sanchez performed welding and related work on the deck of the Enterprise 263.

On August 8, 2018, he fell and sustained the injury that is the subject of this suit. Because Sanchez was sent ashore on August 9, 2018, following his injury, he was unable to complete his assignment and remain with the SmartFab crew until the repairs were completed on August 10, 2018.

THE DISTRICT COURT DECISION:

The district court concluded that because less than 30% of his work was comprised on the two vessels, Sanchez did not satisfy the nature element of the substantiality requirement, and therefore Sanchez was not a seaman. For this reason, the district court denied Sanchez’s motion to remand the case to state court. For the same reason, the district court granted SmartFab’s motion for summary judgment that Sanchez was not a seaman and could not sue. It was from that decision that the Fifth Circuit had this en banc hearing of the appeal.

THE APPEAL IN THE FIFTH CIRCUIT:

In performing its analysis, the Fifth Circuit reviewed the U. S. Supreme Court decisions on seaman status. In particular, they looked at the Chandris case, where the Supreme Court made clear that seamen and non-seamen maritime workers may face similar risks and perils, but that this is not an adequate test for distinguishing between the two. As a result, the Fifth Circuit from the other Supreme Court cases concluded that the following additional inquiries should be made:

(1) Does the worker owe his allegiance to the vessel, rather than simply to a shoreside employer?

(2) Is the work sea-based or involve seagoing activity?

(3) (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

(3) (b) Does the worker’s assignment include sailing with the vessel from port to port or location to location?

The Fifth Circuit noted that simply asking whether the worker was subject to the “perils of the sea” is not enough to resolve the nature element. Consider the captain and crew of a ferry boat or of an inland tug working in a calm river or bay, or the drilling crew on a drilling barge working in a quiet canal. No one would question whether those workers are seamen, yet, their risk from the perils of the sea is minimal. Considering the more definitive inquiries set forth above by the Supreme Court, they then examined whether Sanchez was a seaman under the Jones Act during his employment with SmartFab.

The Fifth Circuit noted that the case law revealed generally that two types of workers are found on drilling rigs. First, we have the drilling crew, who conduct the drilling operations (and workers who support that activity) and stay with the vessel when it moves from one drilling location to another. These workers are the members of the crew of the vessel and are seamen.

The second group are specialized transient workers, usually employed by contractors. These workers are engaged to do specific discrete short-term jobs. Discrete transient jobs are like the work done by longshoremen when a vessel calls in port. As stated in the Supreme Court decision of Papai, these workers have only a “transitory or sporadic” connection to a vessel or group of vessels and do not qualify for seaman status. They therefore concluded Sanchez was a transitory worker, fell into the second group, and thus did not satisfy the nature test.

In summary, the appeals court concluded Sanchez failed to create a genuine issue of material fact that he had a substantial connection to the Enterprise fleet of vessels as it related to the nature of his work. They therefore agreed with the district court that Sanchez failed to meet the requirements for seaman status. Instead, Gilbert Sanchez was a land-based welder directed by his employer to work on two discrete short-term transient repair jobs on two vessels, and was not a seaman. Because Sanchez was not engaged in sea-based work that satisfied the requirement that he be substantially connected to a fleet of vessels in terms of the nature of his work, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment against him in the district court.

Click here to read the decision in its entirety.


If you have any questions regarding this maritime matter, please contact Bill Schwartz, David Carrigee or Jill Willhoft.


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