United States: Court Found Drill Ship Could Be "Vessel In Navigation" Under Facts Presented

Case:   Gold v. Helix Energy Solutions Grp., Inc.
             Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District, Houston
             No. 14-15-00123-CV, 2015 Tex. App. LEXIS 12645 (App. Dec. 15, 2015)

Kelvin Gold sued Helix Energy Solutions Group, Inc. after Gold was injured aboard a watercraft, the Helix 534. The trial court granted summary judgment to Helix on all of Gold's claims. On appeal, Gold challenged whether Helix established as a matter of law that Gold was not a Jones Act seaman—specifically, whether the Helix 534 was a "vessel in navigation."

The Court first noted the term "vessel," for purposes of the Jones Act and LHWCA, "includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water," as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Stewart v. Dutra Constr. Co., 543 U.S. 481, 488, 125 S. Ct. 1118, 160 L. Ed. 2d 932 (2005). The Court reasoned, under this definition, the key question "remains in all cases whether the watercraft's use 'as a means of transportation on water' is a practical possibility or merely a theoretical one."

The Court then turned to the record evidence regarding the characteristics of the drill ship at issue. The Helix 534 was a 534-foot-long drill ship that Helix intended to convert to a well-intervention ship. Helix hired Gold as an "able bodied seaman," and Gold immediately began working 28-day hitches aboard the ship. Helix testimony had established that during Gold's employment, the Helix 534 lacked self-propulsion, although Helix's representative did not know "one way or the other" whether the Helix 534 was practically capable of transportation on water "at all times" during the renovation. Gold testified that the ship had engines, but they were not working. Helix's representative testified that the Helix 534 was dry-docked the entire time Gold was aboard the Helix 534. According to Gold, the ship was "tied up" and "always moored to a dockside" when he was aboard.

The Court thus concluded the summary judgment evidence was not conclusive. On the one hand, there was evidence that the Helix 534 was not merely "at anchor, docked for loading or unloading, or berthed for minor repairs"—when it would certainly remain a vessel. On the other hand, there was also evidence that the Helix 534 was not "permanently out of the water" with only a "remote possibility that [it] may one day sail again"—when it would certainly not be a vessel. Helix's representative had testified that the company believed the repairs would be completed a few months after Gold was first injured on the ship, and Gold's injury occurred only a few months after the repairs began. The ship carried a full crew on 28-day hitches because there was a significant likelihood that the ship would sail again—it was anticipated to sail as early as five months after the repairs began.

In the end, the Court held that Helix failed to conclusively prove that the Helix 534 was not a vessel in navigation for purposes of Gold's claims, finding a reasonable fact-finder could determine, based on the Helix 534's physical characteristics and activities, that the ship was designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water, and the Helix 534's use as a means of transportation on water was a practical possibility. As such, the Court reversed the summary judgment and remanded the case to the trial court.

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