The case against seaman status for offshore energy workers

By Jeanie Tate Goodwin, Partner, HFW, Houston, Texas

Achieving "seaman" status (or more gender neutrally, mariner status) under the U.S. Jones Act opens the door to a world of desirable opportunities, including the right to sue your employer in state court under a relaxed causation standard and have your claim and damages decided by a jury of your peers. With the traditional workers' compensation bar to suing employers out of the way, and a sympathetic jury on the horizon, Jones Act mariner claims are lucrative business. Unsurprisingly then, plaintiffs' maritime personal injury attorneys regularly allege that each claimant is a Jones Act mariner. 

But not every person who works at sea is a mariner. In 2021, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals further refined the U.S. Supreme Court's long-time mariner status test found in Chandris v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995), focusing on what it means for a worker to have a "connection to a vessel substantial in nature."  In Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, LLC, 997 F.3d 564 (5th Cir. 2021) (en banc), the Fifth Circuit recognised that a singular focus on whether a worker is subjected to the "perils of the sea" is insufficient.  Instead, courts should also analyze (1) whether the worker owes allegiance to the vessel or simply to a shoreside employer that send him to work on a vessel; and (2) whether the worker’s assignment to a vessel is limited to performance of a discrete task after which the worker’s connection to the vessel ends. 

Energy contractors who employ workers aboard third-party vessels should pay particular attention to the Fifth Circuit's new Sanchez factors when defending mariner status. Focusing on the substantial-in-nature test will differentiate the two types of workers normally found on drilling rigs: mariners who conduct the marine and drilling operations and stay with the vessel as it moves from location to location; and non-mariners engaged to do a discrete job aboard the vessel for a limited time. 

HFW recently achieved success in arguing these factors for an energy contractor client. Read more HERE.