ofd

By Daniel B. Stanton

The U.S. 5th Circuit recently re-addressed the standing law on seaman status in the Circuit in Alexander v. Express Energy Services Operating, L.P., No. 14-30488. In that case, Alexander was injured while working on Express’ P&A crew on an Apache platform. As a member of the P&A crew, his job was to ensure that “everything was set up and running properly on the deck of the platform,” assist his team in plugging the well, and then cut and remove pipe from the well. To assist Express’s P&A work, Apache contracted a liftboat with crane, which was positioned next to the platform and connected by a catwalk. At the time of his injury, Alexander was performing his P&A duties on the platform, when a wireline from the crane snapped, dropping a bridge plug on his foot. Alexander sued Express, claiming to be a Jones Act seaman. Judge Barbier of the Eastern District of Louisiana granted summary judgment in favor of Express, holding that Alexander did not meet the test for a Jones Act seaman. Alexander appealed.

In considering the plaintiff’s seaman status, the Fifth Circuit relied on long-standing and well-established precedent from the Supreme Court and its own decisions. The Supreme Court in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995) set forth a two-prong test for seaman status: (1) the plaintiff’s duties must “contribut[e] to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission;” and (2) the plaintiff must have a substantial connection to a vessel in terms of both duration and nature. Courts have subsequently found that the second prong of Chandris’s test may generally be satisfied if the plaintiff was permanently assigned to a vessel or spent 30% of his work time aboard a vessel or fleet of vessels.

The 5th Circuit’s analysis focused on the second prong, while the district court focused on the first. With respect to the second prong, Alexander argued that under Roberts v. Cardinal Services, Inc., 266 F.3d 368 (5th Cir. 2001) and Johnson v. TETRA Applied Technologies, L.L.C., No. CIV.A. 11-1992, 2012 WL 3253184 (E.D. La. Aug. 7, 2012) he could count all of his work time on all of his jobs for Express that involved the use of a liftboat (vessel) – which amounted to 35% – regardless of the amount of work time he actually spent on the adjacent vessel. The 5th Circuit found plaintiff’s interpretation of Roberts and Johnson to be in clear contradiction to the Supreme Court’s holding in Chandris, which requires that a seaman actually work on a vessel at least 30% of the time.  Working adjacent to or with the assistance of a vessel was simply not sufficient to satisfy the fundamental purpose of the substantial connection requirement. And, Alexander presented no evidence that he spent 30% of his work time on a vessel. For this reason, regardless of whether his duties contributed to the function of the liftboat, he was not a seaman.

On the eve of its twentieth anniversary, Chandris remains the guiding light for determining issues of the seaman status of an employee. But because of the often intermingled relationships, tasks, and job duties of oil field employees and their employers – and the use of a variety of vessels to support their operations – seaman status remains an area of active litigation in the 5th Circuit. Plaintiffs continue to seek new and creative ways to establish connections to the vessels that transport, house, and support them in an effort to reap the benefits of seaman status under the Jones Act.  Fortunately for employers, the 5th Circuit has been and continues to be a stalwart supporter of Chandris and the consistent and relatively predictable application of its test for seaman status.