Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, sitting en banc, issued its significant and awaited opinion in Gilbert Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC concerning the test for seaman status under the Jones Act.
The case involved a Jones Act suit brought by Gilbert Sanchez, a land-based welder employed by Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC, who sustained injuries while working aboard jack-up drilling rigs owned by Enterprise Offshore Drillings, LLC. The district court dismissed his suit, finding that Sanchez was not a seaman, as he could not prove his connection to a vessel was substantial in nature. On appeal, the 5th Circuit reversed that district court’s holding and noted that Sanchez was a seaman. This ruling was based on precedent within the Circuit that allowed shore-based workers to be classified as seamen even if they worked on a vessel that is docked or anchored at a pier. But the 5th Circuit then ordered that the case be reheard en banc to clarify inconsistences between 5th Circuit and Supreme Court precedent on the test for determining seaman status.
As discussed in our prior alert on this case, the Supreme Court’s test sets forth that an individual qualifies as a seaman if his duties both:
- Contribute to the function of the vessel or the accomplishment of its mission
- Have a connection to a vessel in navigation that is substantial in terms of both duration and nature
Here, the critical question was whether Sanchez’s duties were substantial in nature. Initially, the 5th Circuit held that precedent within the Circuit established that he was exposed to the “perils of the sea” such that he satisfied the nature element.
After rehearing, Judge Eugene Davis authored the 5th Circuit’s unanimous opinion to make its jurisprudence consistent with the Supreme Court’s test for seaman status and ultimately held that Sanchez was not a seaman. Specifically, the en banc 5th Circuit rejected its prior holdings and noted that simply asking whether the employee was subject to the “perils of the sea” did not resolve the nature element and set forth the following additional criteria that should be examined:
- Does the worker owe his allegiance to the vessel, rather than simply to a shoreside employer?
- Is the work sea-based or involve seagoing activity?
- 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 does the worker’s assignment include sailing with the vessel from port to port or location to location?
Under these new criteria, Sanchez satisfied the duration test, because he spent 90% of his time with the employer on rigs owned by Enterprise. But he did not spend 30% of his time doing sea-based work so as to satisfy the nature prong. In support of this, it was noted that crews on drilling rigs are of two types: (1) those in the drilling crew who stay with the vessel and are seamen; and (2) specialized transient workers who go out on specific jobs for short periods of time and are not seamen
Here, Sanchez fell into the transient category because much of his work aboard the rigs did not take him to the sea and was not of a seagoing nature because he did not continue to sail with the vessel once he finished his work. As such, Sanchez could not satisfy the nature element and could not be found to be a seaman.