Commercial shrimp fishing boat

By Michael J. O’Brien

In the recent case of In re Marquette Transp., No. 13-5114, 2016 WL 1695109 (E.D. La. 4/26/16), Judge Sarah Vance offered the latest comment on how a “seafarer” is defined by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Yamaha Motor Corp. U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199 (1996).

In re Marquette arose out of a 2013 vessel collision in the territorial waters of Texas between a towing vessel owned and operated by Marquette and a vessel owned by John Tran, a self-employed commercial fisherman. As a result of the collision, Tran was killed; his fishing vessel was destroyed. Litigation began when Marquette filed a Limitation action under 46 U.S.C § 30501, et seq. Thereafter, the family of John Tran filed a claim against Marquette under the General Maritime Law and the survival and wrongful death laws of Texas.

After extensive litigation, in April 2016, the Tran claimants filed a Memorandum of Law addressing the issue of whether they could supplement remedies available under the General Maritime Law with State Law remedies provided by Texas’s wrongful death and survival statutes. They argued that because the decedent was neither a Jones Act seaman nor a maritime employee covered by the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (“LHWCA”), Tran was a “nonseafarer,” such that his survivors could pursue state law remedies as allowed by Yamaha. Marquette opposed contending that because Tran earned his living as a fisherman, he was a “person engaged in maritime trade.” According to Marquette, Tran was a “seafarer” as defined by Yamaha; thus, his survivors were precluded from recovering non-pecuniary damages under Texas law.

Note that it was undisputed that Tran was neither a Jones Act seaman nor an employee covered by the LHWCA. At issue was whether the Tran claimants could supplement remedies available under General Maritime Law with state law remedies, including the remedies provided by Texas’s Wrongful Death and Survival Statute.

Whether non-pecuniary damages are available in cases involving non-seamen killed or injured in state territorial waters was famously taken up by the U. S. Supreme Court in the aforementioned case of Yamaha. In that case, the parents of a child killed in a jet ski accident in state territorial waters asserted state law remedies. Drawing a distinction between “seafarers” and “nonseafarers,” the U.S. Supreme Court held that the General Maritime Wrongful Death Action does not preempt state remedies in cases involving the death of a non-seafarer in state territorial waters. Holding that Congress had not prescribed remedies for the wrongful deaths of nonseafarers in territorial waters, the Yamaha Court found no basis for displacing state remedies in cases of this nature.

Since Yamaha, courts have divided on the meaning of the critical term “non-seafarer.” The division between the two leading interpretations of “nonseafarer” is based on language found in the Yamaha opinion. In a footnote, the Yamaha Court explained that “by non-seafarers, we mean persons who are neither seaman covered by the Jones Act…nor longshore workers covered by the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act.” However, also in the Yamaha opinion, the Court described the scope of its holding noting that state remedies are not displaced in cases where the claimant “was not a seaman, longshore worker, or person otherwise engaged in maritime trade.” Seizing upon the “person otherwise engaged in maritime trade” language, several courts have concluded that a “person otherwise engaged in maritime trade” is a “seafarer” precluded from pursuing non-pecuniary damages under state law even though that person is neither a Jones Act seaman nor longshoreman covered by the LHWCA.

Marquette argued that Tran, a self-employed commercial fisherman, was “otherwise engaged in maritime trade at the time of the collision.” Based on this interpretation, Tran would be deemed a “seafarer” under Yamaha and the Tran claimants would be barred from supplementing their federal maritime law remedies with non-pecuniary damages provided by Texas law. Other Courts have explicitly rejected Marquette’s approach and simply defined a nonseafarer as one who is neither a seaman nor covered by the LHWCA.

In a well-reasoned opinion, Judge Vance found the Tran claimants’ arguments more persuasive and more consistent with Yamaha as a whole. She reasoned that it was clear that Jones Act seamen and Longshore workers covered by the LHWCA are “seafarers,” while individuals who are not covered by these maritime statutes are “nonseafarers.” In reaching the result, Judge Vance found that in defining the term “nonseafarer” in the aforementioned footnote, the Supreme Court expressly tied “seafarer” status to coverage under federal maritime statutes, such as the Jones Act and the LHWCA. Judge Vance further advised that it was reasonable to conclude that Yamaha’s reference to “persons engaged in maritime trade”, mainly refers to those maritime employees who are not longshore workers, but are, nonetheless, covered by the LHWCA. Section 902(3) of the LHWCA defines “employee” as “any person engaged in maritime employment, including any longshoreman or other person engaged in longshoring operations, and any harbor worker including a ship repairman, ship builder, and ship breaker…” 33 U.S.C. § 902(3).

Based on this reasoning, Judge Vance joined those courts that have held, for purposes of Yamaha, a nonseafarer is someone who is neither a seaman covered by the Jones Act nor a longshore or harbor worker covered by the LHWCA. Accordingly, the decedent Tran was a nonseafarer and Yamaha did not preclude application of Texas statutes preventing recovery of non-pecuniary damages. While this case involved Texas law, Judge Vance’s ruling should not be narrowly read to apply only to Texas-based incidents as her ruling would be the same in Louisiana as well.