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When Judge John R. Brown remarked in the 1982 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ case Burks v. American River Transportation Co. that “three men in a tub” or “Jonah inside the whale” might be considered seamen under the prevailing legal standard, he was expressing the difficulty in applying the test for seaman status. The meaning of the term “seaman” has evolved as the vessels on which these workers sail have changed. When ships were powered by wind, the seamen were defined by their assistance in navigating the vessel. As steam replaced the sail and the nature of the vessel’s crew changed, the definition for “seamen” changed also. By the early 20th century everyone who was employed in furtherance of the purpose of the voyage of a vessel was considered a seaman. Today, the courts have to deal with everything from jet skis to jack-up drilling rigs. In the 1903 U.S. Supreme Court case The Osceola, the court denied seamen a remedy for the negligence of the master or crew. Congress responded in 1920 by enacting the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. appendix �688, granting a negligence remedy to “[a]ny seaman.” The statute nowhere defines the term “seaman,” leaving it up to the courts to determine the workers who qualify. The Supreme Court initially gave the term “seaman” a broad sweep holding in the 1926 case International Stevedoring Co. v. Haverty that longshoremen were seamen and entitled to the remedy under the Jones Act. Congress, however, intended that land-based workers, like longshoremen, have a workers’ compensation remedy and that the sea-based workers who travel from port to port with the ship have the negligence remedy under the Jones Act. Therefore, within six months of the decision of the Supreme Court in 1926, Congress enacted the Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. ��901-950. As originally enacted, the LHWCA provided a workers’ compensation remedy to workers injured on navigable waters, but excluded from its coverage “a master or member of a crew of any vessel.” The effect of the enactment of the LHWCA was to limit the workers who qualified for an action under the Jones Act to the master or member of a crew of any vessel. Therefore, the LHWCA now provides the definition for the workers who are “seamen” within the Jones Act. While the Supreme Court decided a number of cases in the 1940s and 1950s on the issue of whether a worker was covered by the Jones Act or the LHWCA, the court made no attempt to enunciate a test to determine whether a worker was covered under either statute. The most guidance the court gave was to declare that the statutes are mutually exclusive. Finally, in 1958, the Supreme Court stopped issuing opinions on seaman status for 33 years, allowing the lower courts to develop three different tests on the subject. The difficulties encountered by the courts finally brought a renewed interest from the Supreme Court in the 1990s on the status of seamen. The court initiated the reconsideration in the 1991 Supreme Court case McDermott International Inc. v. Wilander. Recognizing that “Congress established a clear distinction between land-based and sea-based maritime workers,” the court stated: “It is not the employee’s particular job that is determinative, but the employee’s connection to a vessel.” Although the court declined the opportunity in Wilander to define the necessary connection, the court did agree with the requirement from the 5th Circuit “that an employee’s duties must contribut[e] to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.’” Four years later, the Supreme Court was called upon to rule in Chandris Inc. v. Latsis (1995) to explain the connection that a worker must have to a vessel in order to obtain seaman status. According to the opinion, Antonios Latsis was a supervising engineer for Chandris’ fleet of six passenger cruise ships. Latsis planned and directed maintenance from shore as well as while taking voyages on the vessels. During a voyage to Bermuda to plan a renovation of a vessel, Latsis suffered a detached retina. Expanding on its land-based/sea-based distinction in Wilander, the Supreme Court in Chandris stated that Jones Act coverage “depends �not on the place where the injury is inflicted . . . but on the nature of the seaman’s service, his status as a member of the vessel, and his relationship as such to the vessel and its operation in navigable waters.’ ” Although Latsis asked the court to adopt a test that would afford seaman status for workers who are assigned to a vessel for a voyage or who are exposed to the perils of the sea, the court rejected a “ snapshot” approach that based seaman status on performing seaman’s work or being exposed to seaman’s risks at the time of the injury. In order to prevent workers from oscillating between Jones Act coverage and other remedies, the court held that “a seaman must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.” The court stated that the total circumstances of a worker’s employment must be considered, and the court enunciated a rule of thumb to assist the lower courts: “A worker who spends less than about 30 percent of his time in the service of a vessel in navigation should not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act.” AN IDENTIFIABLE FLEET Having clarified the extent of a worker’s contribution and connection to a vessel, the Supreme Court tackled the question of what constitutes an identifiable fleet in 1997′s Harbor Tug & Barge Co. v. Papai. According to the opinion, John Papai performed deckhand, maintenance and longshoring work through a union hiring hall for the three tugboat operators in the San Francisco Bay area. The jobs lasted from one day to as long as 40 days and the job of deckhand was his most frequent assignment. Papai was injured while painting the housing of a tug operated by Harbor Tug & Barge. The Supreme Court considered Papai’s separate assignments to be temporary and sporadic so that the assignment during which Papai was injured was insufficient, by itself, to satisfy the test enunciated in Chandris. Consequently, Papai claimed that the vessels owned or operated by the three companies, which were joined by a common labor pool, should be considered to be an identifiable fleet. The court rejected Papai’s claim and held that common ownership or control of the vessels was essential for them to be considered a fleet. The unity of the hiring hall was not a substitute for the unity of vessel ownership. The Supreme Court has for the first time set forth its standards to determine whether a worker has seaman status. Unfortunately, the decisions have, for the most part, established general rules that will leave the lower courts with enough latitude to devise conflicting interpretations. Further, the Supreme Court has not provided guidance as to which of the myriad structures that float on water may be considered to be vessels in navigation. Maritime practitioners can only hope that the Supreme Court will continue its quest to clarify the law of seaman status and will not let another 30 years pass before resolving the conflicts that undoubtedly will arise.

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