Scott Becker was hired by the defendants to work as a carpenter aboard a fleet of vessels. His employment was directly related to the Ford Island Bridge project. On March 13, 2000, Becker filed a complaint against several defendants for the injuries he sustained while working on the project. He brought suit under the Jones Act for these injuries. The defendant's contest whether Becker satisfies the requirements for an individual to be considered a seaman under the Jones Act. As such, they filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue.
Does the plaintiff qualify as a seaman?
The court began its analysis by outlining the test for seaman under the Jones Act as outlined by the United States Supreme Court in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 1995 AMC 1840 (1995). In Chandris, the Court explained that an individual qualifies as a seaman if: (1) his duties contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission, (2) he has a substantial connection both in duration and in nature, and (3) to a vessel in navigation.
The defendant's in this case contend that Becker fails to satisfy this requirements to be classified as a seaman for three reasons: (1) the nature of his work was that of a land-based construction worker not a seaman, whose job is directed toward contributing to the function or mission of a vessel, (2) he did not have the requisite substantial connection to vessels in navigation, and (3) the floating crafts he worked upon were not "vessels in navigation." The court addressed the defendant's arguments by the applicable elements outlined in Chandris.
The threshold question in addressing the contribution to the function or mission of vessel is a liberally construed requirement that is satisfied by any individual who works at sea in service of a ship. As such, the defendants did not contest Becker's satisfaction of this requirement.
Next, the court addressed the substantial connection portion of the seaman test, a fact specific inquiry. After a lengthy review of cases that either found or did not find a connection the court concluded that the appropriate question of whether a party has a substantial connection is not which duties were assigned by contract to the individual but instead the court must focus on the plaintiff's connection, in actual fact, to a vessel or identifiable fleet of vessels. The court explained that an individual need not be a member of the crew to be considered a seaman but simply whether he was doing the ship's work.
Here, the parties dispute the nature and duration of Becker's work. The court took note that Becker's status as a carpenter is not dispositive of seaman status. It also rejected the defendant's argument that Becker did not have any Coast Guard licenses, merchant mariner's Z card, or knowledge about seamanship as outcome determinative. The court focused its analysis on the actual work of Becker. The carpenter foreman confirmed that while aboard the vessel that Becker would occasionally handle line, serve as lookout, assist in securing and stowing cargo, refueling the vessel, and even pilot small boats. As a result, Becker claims to have spent 40-50 percent of his time aboard various vessels. The defendant's allege he spent at most 20 percent of his time and thereby fails to satisfy the 30 percent rule of thumb set out in Chandris. As such, a material issue of fact exists for a jury to decide rending summary judgment improper.
Finally, the court addressed the final issue of what constitutes a "vessel in navigation." It explained that a vessel's purpose need not be the transportation of persons or things to be considered a vessel in navigation under the Jones Act. The Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit apply a liberal standard in determining what constitutes a vessel in navigation. Floating platforms and barges that have no means of steering or navigation lights have been held to be vessels in navigation. Further, the Supreme Court allows for a seaman to in connection with more than one vessel to determine seaman status so long as the multiple vessels he worked aboard belonged to the same fleet.Here, the Ford Island Bridge project utilized numerous vessels owned and operated by one defendant. Aboard these numerous vessels, Becker performed a variety of tasks. As such, the evidence before the court presents a numerous questions of material fact that are better left to a fact finder to decide. As such, the court denies the defendant's motion for summary judgment.
Substantial connection of a worker to a vessel does not depend on duties assigned by contract or his primary duties or the duties or work of others, but on his connection in actual fact to a vessel or fleet.
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