Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer LLC

Maritime Update: Seaman Status Denied to Welder Who Spent 90% of His Time Working on Vessels


Turner v. Wayne B. Smith, Inc., 2014 WL 6775796 (E.D. Mo. 12/2/2014)

Defendant, Wayne B. Smith, Inc. operates a facility on the Mississippi River that is used to load materials onto barges and railcars. Defendant also owns tugs and barges. Plaintiff had been employed by Defendant as a welder since 2003, and 90% of his time is spent welding. Plaintiff’s job as a welder encompassed welding various metal components around Defendant’s land-based facilities and on Defendants’ tugs and barges. In the 10% of the time Plaintiff is not welding, Plaintiff performs various tasks on land and on docked boats, including reworking cable and transmission lines and doing repair work.

Generally, when Plaintiff needed to do welding on a tug, it was brought to the dock and tied off. Plaintiff got on the boat, fixed it, and got off. This constituted 90% of his work, and he did it every day.  Plaintiff also sometimes welded from a flat-deck barge. For those projects, Plaintiff drives his welding truck onto a flat-deck barge, where it is transported to a project site. Plaintiff used a water taxi owned by Defendant to return to Defendant’s dock at the end of the day. Plaintiff rarely worked on boats while they were moving up or down the river.  Plaintiff was not assigned as crew member, deckhand, or engineer on any of Defendant’s towboats. Plaintiff also does not consider himself assigned to the barges on which he sometimes works. Plaintiff does not hold any marine licenses.

Plaintiff was injured while riding as a passenger on Defendant’s water taxi.  At the time, Plaintiff had completed his work for the day, which involved welding on a structure in the Mississippi River. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging negligence under the Jones Act.  Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment alleging that Plaintiff is not a Jones Act seaman.

In Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, the Supreme Court developed a two-pronged test for determining seaman status. Under the first prong, an employee’s duties must ‘contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.’  Under the second prong, “a seaman must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both duration and nature.”  The fundamental purpose of this requirement is to give full effect to the remedial scheme created by Congress and 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, and therefore whose employment does not regularly expose them to the perils of the sea.

The Court found that the Plaintiff met the first prong of the Chandris test because his work contributed to the function of the Defendant’s vessels.  The Plaintiff, however, failed to meet the second prong of the Chandris test because he did not have a connection to a group of vessels in navigation that is substantial in both duration and nature.  The Court found that because the Plaintiff spent 90% of his time working aboard Defendant’s docked tugs, he satisfied the duration component of this prong.  Because the Plaintiff did not perform work on vessels that moved up and down the river, however, the Court found that he was not regularly exposed to the perils of the sea.  The Court determined that Plaintiff was not a member of the vessel’s crew, but rather a land-based employee who happened to be working on the vessel at a given time.  Accordingly, the Court granted the Defendant’s motion.


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