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Don't Miss the Boat: Basics of Maritime Personal Injury Law - Blog Series - The Jones Act (What is a Jones Act Vessel?)

Recently, attorney Lee J. Bloomfield, presented a seminar entitled: "Don't Miss the Boat: Basics of Maritime Personal Injury Law in 45 Minutes"

From the seminar papers, we are producing a blog series. This is the seventh blog post of this series. This post discusses what is a Jones Act vessel?

What is a Jones Act Vessel?

The determination of whether an employee is a seaman is dependent on the employee's relation to a vessel in navigation. Although the Jones Act does not define the term "vessel in navigation," the courts have not limited the status of "Jones Act vessel" to those structures traditionally thought of as boats or ships. Special purpose crafts and barges, including a submersible oil storage facility, an oil drilling barge, and a pipeline barge, have been considered vessels in navigation.

There had been a split among the circuits on the requirements for vessel status. Some circuits looked to the design and use of the watercraft while other circuits looked to the actual transportation function of the craft. These cases usually involved crafts that, while floating on water and having certain design characteristics similar to traditional vessels, were used primarily as work platforms rather than as a means of transportation. They are commonly used in maritime construction.

The Supreme Court finally settled this issue in its decision in Stewart v. Dutra Const., 543 U.S. 481 (2005), and has potentially broadened the coverage of the Jones Act to Co. workers in such areas as marine construction. Stewart concerned the status of a large floating platform known as the SUPER SCOOP that operated as a dredge, removing silt from the ocean floor. The silt was then dumped into scows that floated alongside it. Although largely stationary, and without its own means of propulsion, the SUPER SCOOP had navigation characteristics similar to traditional vessels, such as navigation lights, ballast tanks, and a dining area for the crew. Also, it was classified as an industrial vessel and as such, was required to be registered and to comply with safety regulations issued by the Coast Guard and the United States Department of Transportation. The plaintiff was employed onboard the SUPER SCOOP as a marine engineer to maintain its mechanical equipment and was injured while attempting to repair one of the scow.

The Supreme Court held that a dredge was a vessel for Jones Act purposes. It adopted the expansive definition of the term "vessel" as set forth in 1 U.S.C. Sec. 3 which requires that a watercraft be "used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water" to qualify as a vessel. It is not required that a watercraft be used primarily for that purpose or be in motion to qualify as a Jones Act vessel. Citing Chandris, the Court stated that a watercraft does not pass in and out of vessel status depending on whether it was moving at the time of the accident.

The Stewart case has the potential to expand Jones Act coverage. A number of workers are employed in maritime construction work, as well as other maritime work. This work may not require extended trips on vessels, but the workers may spend the requisite 30% of time working on barges or other floating watercraft used at their work sites. Many of these workers live at home and would otherwise appear to be shore based. When presented with an injury case involving such workers, keep in mind that they may potentially be Jones Act seamen and covered under the Act's more generous provisions.

The reasoning in Stewart v. Dutra Const. Co. was subsequently followed by several lower court decisions which found various structures to be vessels, such as: 1) a barge used toprovide temporary housing to employees hired to perform dredging work; 2) a spudded down cleaning barge; and 3) a casino barge. The trend among the courts following Stewart is that most structures that float and have the capability of being used for transportation purposes will be considered vessels. This could potentially include floating dock barges and work platforms. Both are routinely used in the marine industry and have not been held to be vessels in some earlier decisions.

What the Supreme Court giveth, however, it potentially taketh away. In its January 2013 decision in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach Florida, 133 S. Ct. 735 (2013), the Court appears to have backed off its expansive view of vessel status. Lozman involved a 60 by 12 foot floating home. It was a plywood structure with a sitting room, bedroom, closet, bathroom, kitchen, and a stairway leading to a second level with office space. The home had an empty bilge space underneath to keep it afloat, and had been towed several times before being kept in a marina owned by the City of Riviera Beach. The City brought an admiralty lawsuit in rem against the home, seeking a lien for dockage fees and damages for trespass. In holding that the houseboat was not a vessel, it stated "a structure does not fall within the scope of this statutory phrase unless a reasonable observer, looking to the [structure's] physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water." Id. at 741.

While the facts in Lozman appear to be unique and therefore its application could, arguably, be limited, the language the Court used has the potential to restrict vessel status. For example, a lower court could hold that a work platform is not a vessel. Consequently, this decision may limit the application of the Jones Act and the general maritime law and the ability of maritime construction workers and others to recover tort damages.

The next post, of this series, will be in conclusion and it will cover  The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act.

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