The Fifth Circuit again has taken up the issue of seaman status. This time in the case of Sanchez v Smart Fabricators of Texas, Inc. decided on August 14, 2020.
This case involved Gilbert Sanchez who was a welder employed by Smart Fabricators for 67 days. Sanchez was injured while working on an offshore drill rig owned and operated by Enterprise Offshore Drilling LLC. In his time with Smart Fabricators, he spent 3% of his time in the shop onshore, 6% on another drill vessel owned by Ensco (not involved in the litigation), 72% of his time on ENTERPRISE WFD 350, which was located at the time of his work adjacent to an inland pier, and 19% on another Enterprise rig (ENTERRPISE 263), which was on the Outer Continental Shelf. He claimed injury when he tripped on a pipe welded to the deck of the ENTERPRISE 263. While his injury occurred while offshore, the vast majority of his time was alongside a pier and he went home every night for that work.
The lawsuit was initially filed in state court, but it was then removed by the defendant to federal court for the Southern District of Texas. There, Sanchez filed a motion to remand. Sanchez asserted his suit was not removable as he was a Jones Act seaman. The trial court denied the motion to remand. In the meantime, the defendant had filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on status. The trial court held Sanchez was not a seaman as he could not prove that his “connection to the vessel was substantial in nature”.
Both rulings rested on the District Court’s holding that Sanchez did not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act.
The first appeal was heard by a panel consisting of Judges Higginbotham, Ho and Engelhardt (with Judge Higginbotham writing the opinion). This initial appeal court panel affirmed the trial court, denying seaman’s status and upholding the removal to federal court.
That opinion was withdrawn on April 14, 2020 and reheard by a new panel. The second panel of appeals judges consisted of Judges Davis, Jones and Willett. The new panel, with Judge Davis writing the majority, reversed the trial court. They held the Fifth Circuit precedent cases established in both In re Endeavor Marine Inc. and Naquin v. Elevating Boats, LLC made it clear that a worker exposed to the perils of the sea is a seaman, even if the vessel is docked or anchored at a pier. Note, Judge Davis also was the author of the opinion in Naquin.
The Court reasoned that despite the fact Sanchez was a land-based welder who went home every evening, his work aboard vessels did not disqualify him as a Jones Act seaman. As a result of this ruling, the Fifth Circuit Court remanded the case back to the District Court with instructions the suit be remanded or returned to state court; i.e. a Jones Act case is not removable from state court.
To show how difficult this issue of seaman status is, these same three judges who signed off on the majority opinion then signed off on a concurring opinion. And, the concurring opinion was authored by Judge Davis, the same Judge who wrote the majority opinion.
In the concurring opinion, Judge Davis noted that the Court was bound by its precedent, which he viewed as inconsistent.
Specifically, this welder whose duties did not take him to sea should probably disqualify him as a seaman. Judge Davis stated, “It is clear to me that Sanchez was a land-based fitter and welder whose duties did not take him to sea; consequently, he does not qualify as a seaman.” However, he felt bound by the precedent of other cases of the Fifth Circuit. In so ruling, this panel felt the prior decisions had not correctly interpreted the “nature element of the substantial connection requirement.” While bound by their court’s prior decisions, they felt Sanchez satisfied the duration prong of the substantial connection requirement, but not the nature element of that requirement.
The concurrence by Judge Davis expressed the belief that the whole of the Fifth Court should rehear this matter en banc to bring the Court’s jurisprudence in line with Supreme Court case law.
Judge Davis is one of the most knowledgeable maritime minds on our Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. The fact that he not only wrote the majority opinion, but also the concurring opinion (very rare), is indicative of the inconsistency troubling the court (as well as our vessel owners/operators and their lawyers!).
The full case may be found here.