Gilbert Sanchez was injured when he tripped on a pipe welded to the deck of a jacked-up offshore drilling rig. He filed a negligence action against Smart Fabricators of Texas (“SmartFab”), claiming seaman status under the Jones Act.
The District Court denied Sanchez’s motion to remand to state court and granted SmartFab’s motion for summary judgment. Both rulings rested on the District Court’s holding that Sanchez did not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act.
The Fifth Circuit reversed and held that Sanchez qualified as a seaman under the Jones Act. They found that Sanchez showed he had a substantial connection, both in nature and duration, to the vessels on which he worked. Like the District Court, the Fifth Circuit found that Sanchez satisfied the duration requirement of the Chandris test because he spent over 70% of his employment with SmartFab aboard a rig adjacent to an inland pier and around 19% of his employment aboard a rig on the Outer Continental Shelf. But, unlike the District Court, the Fifth Circuit held that Sanchez’s connection to the vessel was substantial in nature and that he satisfied the nature requirement of the Chandris test where his work on vessels exposed him to the perils of the sea. The Court reasoned that despite being a land-based welder who went home every evening, Sanchez’s work aboard vessels did not disqualify him as a Jones Act seaman. Therefore, the Fifth Circuit remanded with instructions to remand the matter to state court.
In their decision, all three Judges on the Fifth Circuit specially concurred in the judgment. This means that while they agreed with the decision they rendered, they issued a special, extra concurring opinion. In that concurring opinion, they noted that although the Court was bound by its precedent (the prior decisions of the court which required they follow such prior law), they viewed Fifth Circuit case law as inconsistent with the teachings of the Supreme Court. The concurring opinion clearly viewed Sanchez as a land-based fitter and welder whose duties did not take him to sea; consequently, under the case law of the Supreme Court, he did not qualify as a seaman. The concurrence expressed the belief that the Court should rehear this matter en banc where the entire group of judges on the Fifth Circuit hear the case and decide it; i.e. not just three judges as in a normal appeal. They sought an en banc hearing in order to allow the Fifth Circuit Court’s jurisprudence to now fall in line with Supreme Court case law.
An order dated October 30, 2020 was issued by the Fifth Circuit Court to announce it would now rehear this case en banc.
Stay tuned for the final outcome.