On March 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied Jones Act seaman status to an offshore worker in the case of GILBERT SANCHEZ v. SMART FABRICATORS OF TEXAS, L.L.C. While the case does not create a new or different standard, it is a helpful review of what is necessary to be considered a Jones Act seaman.
Gilbert Sanchez, a welder employed by Appellee Smart Fabricators of Texas, L.L.C. (“Smart”), was injured when he tripped on a pipe welded to the deck of a jacked-up offshore drilling rig. At the time of the accident, Sanchez had worked for Smart for 67 days, all but two of which he spent on jacked-up rigs. The rig was owned by Enterprise Offshore Drilling L.L.C. Sanchez’s employer Smart does not own or operate any rigs or vessels. Instead, Smart and its employees work as a contractor “in the business of steel fabrication and repairing oil and gas drilling equipment.” Sanchez initially sued Enterprise as well as Smart, but he later dismissed all claims against Enterprise.
If a plaintiff is not a seaman, his sole remedy against his employer is workers’ compensation—meaning that he cannot maintain an action in either state or federal court. Because the Jones Act was designed to address the unique dangers of ocean-faring work—dangers not faced by land-based workers, even in marine-adjacent industries—the key consideration is whether the employee “face[s] regular exposure to the perils of the sea.”
The Supreme Court developed a two-prong test to determine whether a plaintiff qualifies as a Jones Act seaman.
Here, the parties (and the district court below) agree that Sanchez satisfied the first prong: his duties “contribute[d] to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.”
They dispute only the second step of the inquiry, which requires that the employee “have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.” This requirement is designed “to separate the sea-based maritime employees who are entitled to Jones Act protection from those land-based workers who have only a transitory or sporadic connection to a vessel in navigation.”
The district court found that Sanchez failed this prong because his connection to the rig was not substantial in nature. The Fifth Circuit agreed.
As the Supreme Court has observed, “[f]or the substantial connection requirement to serve its purpose, the inquiry into the nature of the employee’s connection to the vessel must concentrate on whether the employee’s duties take him to sea.” As the district court observed below, Sanchez’s duties involved work on drilling rigs only “while they were jacked up on the sea floor, with the body of the rig out of the water and not subject to waves, tides, or other water movement.”
Finding that Sanchez did not perform “tasks requiring operating or navigating the rigs,” they concluded he was a welder injured when he tripped on a pipe welded to the floor, a circumstance unrelated to any perils of the sea. The only time Sanchez’s work might be said to have “taken him to sea” in a sense contemplated by the Jones Act was for the four days when the rig was under tow—and even then, he was treated as a mere passenger, not a crew member.