By Tod J. Everage

It took one of the newly-minted judges on the Eastern District bench to finally adopt a working definition for the types of “perils of the sea” that Jones Act seaman are exposed to when analyzing the second prong of the Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 346 (1995) test. That test requires the plaintiff, claiming to be a Jones Act seaman, to “demonstrate 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.” Id. at 368. The two prongs of Chandris are: (1) the plaintiff must show that his duties contribute to the function of the vessel or the accomplishment of its mission, and (2) the plaintiff must demonstrate a connection to a vessel (or an identifiable group of vessels) in navigation.

In Duet v. Am. Comm’l Lines, LLC, No. 12-3025, 2013 WL 1682988 (E.D. La. April 17, 2013), Judge Jane Triche Milazzo, in denying remand, found that a plaintiff who was injured while working aboard the defendant’s vessel was not a Jones Act seaman. Duet, a mechanic, was assigned by his employer to work at a barge repair facility owned and operated by ACL Transportation Services, LLC. The facility consisted of “a number of barges tied together and moored to the riverbank in order to create a stationary work platform (the “floating dock”),” that extended 1-2 miles along the river. The barges serviced by the facility remain in the river but are moored to the floating dock. ACL also owns and operates several smaller push boats to help move the barges in and out of the facility, as well as shift the barges within the floating dock itself. Duet was not assigned to any specific vessel, but performed his mechanic duties on barges and push boats alike. He only boarded the push boats as necessary to complete his work on those boats or to be transported to the more remote locations within the facility that required his work. However, when necessary to reposition barges at the floating dock to facilitate repairs, he would occasionally work as a deckhand, and on two occasions had left the facility by boat to assist in sea trials and help save a sinking vessel. Duet was injured while working aboard one of the vessels and sued several defendants and his employer, alleging to be a Jones Act seaman.

The court’s analysis primarily focused on the second Chandris prong, whose purpose is to “separate the sea-based maritime employees who are entitled to Jones Act protection from those … whose employment does not regularly expose them to the perils of the sea.” Duet, at *3 (quoting Chandris, 515 U.S. at 368). Seaman status cannot simply be resolved “by examining the situs of an injury or the particular work the injured employee was performing at the time he was injured.” Duet, at *4. Rather, the Court must look to the total circumstances to determine whether the plaintiff had a “sufficient relation to the navigation of the vessel and the perils attendance thereon.” Id. (quoting Chandris, 515 U.S. at 370). After finding that Duet satisfied the duration component, the Court turned to whether his connection to the floating dock was also substantial in nature. This inquiry turns on whether Plaintiff was regularly exposed to the “perils of the sea.”

Citing other cases outside of this Circuit, Judge Milazzo stated that the type of “special hazards and disadvantages” commonly faced by seaman “include the need to fight fires without outside assistance, the need to abandon ship, the need to survive exposure to inclement weather until help arrives, potential delay or inconvenience in being transported offsite to receive medical attention, and being stuck on a vessel under the control of its Master and operator for extended periods of time until the next port call." Duet at *5 (citing Lara v. Arctic King Ltd., 178 F.Supp.2d 1178, 1182 (W.D. Wash. 2001); Denson v. Ingram Barge Co., No. 07-84, 2009 WL 1033817, at *3 (W.D. Ky. Apr. 16, 2009)). We note that this definition had previously been argued to Judge Lemelle, but his opinion provided no comment on the subject. See Leblanc v. AEP Elmood, LLC, No. 11-1668, 2012 WL 669416, at *5 (E.D. La. Feb. 29, 2012).

In support of his argument, Duet asserted that he satisfied this test because he was required to wear a life preserver at all times and faced such hazards as: (1) the dangers associated with the movement of vessel in water due to wind gusts and river turbulence; (2) trip-and-fall hazards caused by the icing of barge surfaces in the winter; (3) inclement weather; and (4) the dangers of “long-stepping” from barge to barge. The Court was not persuaded, but held that “such hazards are more typical of those faced by a longshoreman and therefore do not constitute the kind of special hazards and disadvantages commonly faced by seaman.” Duet at *5 (citing Leblanc, at *5; Denson, at *3).

While previous courts have adequately addressed and applied Chandris without issue, if nothing else, Duet offers a citation within the Eastern District for a working definition of “perils of the sea” in a seaman status determination, should that analysis be necessary.