United States: Fifth Circuit Re-Visits Standing Law On Seaman Status

Case:   Alexander v. Express Energy Servs. Operating, L.P.
            United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
            No. 14-30488, 784 F.3d 1032 (5th Cir. 5/07/2015)

In Alexander v. Express Energy Services Operating, L.P., the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals re-visited the standing law on seaman status, affirming the district court's finding that an injured platform worker was not a seaman. Michael Alexander, a lead hand/operator in Express Energy Services Operating LP's plug and abandonment (P&A) department, was injured while working on a P&A project on a platform owned by Apache Corporation. As a member of the P&A crew, Alexander's job duties included ensuring that everything was set up and running properly on the deck of the platform so that the plugging operation was successful.

At the time of the accident, a liftboat contracted by Apache was positioned next to the platform, with a catwalk connecting the vessel to the platform. A permanent crane was located on the liftboat, while other equipment, including wireline equipment, was located on the platform. While working on the platform, Alexander was injured when a wireline from the crane snapped, dropping a bridge plug on his foot. Alexander sued Express under the Jones Act, claiming to be a Jones Act seaman. The district court granted Express' motion for summary judgment, holding that Alexander did not meet the test for a Jones Act seaman. Alexander appealed.

In considering Alexander's seaman status, the Fifth Circuit relied on controlling precedent from the United States Supreme Court, Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995), which set forth a two-prong test for seaman status: (1) the claimant's duties must "contribut[e] to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission;" and (2) the claimant must have a connection to a vessel in navigation that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature. In Chandris, the Supreme Court emphasized that a maritime worker who spends only a small fraction of his or her working time on board a vessel is fundamentally land-based and therefore not a member of the vessel's crew, regardless of what his or her duties are. The Supreme Court adopted the Fifth Circuit's rule of thumb for ordinary cases: a worker who spends less than about 30% of his or her total work time in the service of a vessel or an identifiable fleet of vessels should not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act.

The Fifth Circuit's analysis focused on the second prong of the Chandris test. The Fifth Circuit rejected Alexander's arguments 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 was allowed to count all of his time on jobs for Express that involved the use of an adjacent vessel – which amounted to 35% – regardless of the amount of work time he actually spent on the adjacent vessel. The Fifth Circuit found this interpretation of Roberts and Johnson to be in clear contradiction of the Chandris requirement that a seaman spent a substantial amount of time, ordinarily 30%, actually working on a vessel. Significantly, Alexander failed to offer any evidence that he spent 30% or more of his work time on a vessel; rather, his argument depended entirely on his interpretation of Roberts and Johnson.

Because the undisputed evidence showed that approximately 65% of Alexander's jobs involved a fixed platform only, without the help of an adjacent vessel, and even on the other jobs involving a vessel adjacent to the platform, his work occurred mostly on the platform, Alexander failed to produce sufficient evidence to establish seaman status. The Fifth Circuit emphasized it was not sufficient under Chandris that Alexander was merely near a vessel on more than 30% of his jobs or that he performed some incidental work on a vessel on those jobs. To be a seaman, he had to show he actually worked on a vessel at least 30% of the time. As Alexander failed to carry his burden of showing that he was a seaman, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's order granting Express's motion for summary judgment and dismissing Alexander's claims against Express.

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