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A Legal Perspective - Court Applies "Seaman Status" Test for Yacht Captain

August 12, 2017

One of the most well-known U.S. laws involving the rights of commercial mariners is the Jones Act. This federal law applies across the board to workers on U.S. flag vessels. It covers ferry captains, oil tanker engineers, tugboat deckhands, fishing trawler cooks, and just about anyone else in-between. Application of the Jones Act hinges upon whether an employee satisfies a legal test for something known as “seaman status.”
A federal court recently confronted this issue of seaman status in connection with an individual who worked aboard a family’s yacht. He had been hired to handle various maintenance and repair work. Sometime thereafter, the employee moved into the role of captain on a part-time basis while continuing to handle maintenance and repair duties. He eventually became the vessel’s full-time captain.
While in the process of moving the yacht one day, this captain fell about seven feet onto a concrete pier, landing on his elbows. He underwent a number of surgeries. A few months after the accident, he was terminated by the family. Several months after his termination, the captain filed suit against the family for medical expenses.
Under the Jones Act, expenses for medical care are one of the benefits that are covered. They fall under maintenance and cure, which is the maritime term for living expenses and medical expenses, respectively. In this regard, maritime law is similar to shoreside systems in which an injured person is compensated. For instance, with workers’ comp, the primary recognized benefits are lost wages and medical expenses.
The yacht owner filed a motion to dismiss the captain’s case. A motion is essentially a request for a court to take action on something. It could be a request for a court to render a decision on an issue, such as whether a certain piece of evidence will be admissible at trial. In federal and state litigation, a commonly used motion is for dismissal of an action, as is the case here. Such a motion could stop a lawsuit in its tracks.
Here, the motion went to the issue of whether the captain was a “seaman.” This issue had been established by the Supreme Court, which set forth a two-part test governing whether a marine employee is considered a seaman under the Jones Act. The first prong of this test looks to whether the employee’s duties “contribute to the function of the vessel.” The second prong requires the employee must “have a connection to a vessel in navigation…that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature. Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 368 (1995).  
For old ship buffs, the name Chandris could ring a bell because they’re the company that bought the liner America after its distinguished career with United States Lines, which operated America’s spectacular sibling, United States. Under the Chandris flag, the America became the Australis. Australis, ultimately renamed American Star by its final owners, met a sad fate foundering on a reef in the Canary Islands during a tow.
In the lawsuit involving the yacht captain, the court was interested in the Chandris case because it provided the standard for determining seaman status. The court looked at the captain’s allegations that he moved the vessel between ports and arranged for repairs. That satisfied the first element of the test, which was about contributing to the function of a vessel.
As for the second element of the test, the court looked at the U.S. Supreme Court’s position that employees who spend less than roughly 30% of their time in the service of a vessel in navigation do not qualify as seamen. The court felt that living aboard the yacht and working in a full-time capacity performing cleaning, maintenance and repair duties satisfied the second element of the test as to “duration and nature.”
In applying this two-part test for “seaman status,” the court did not grant the motion to dismiss the captain’s lawsuit. That meant he was free to move forward in arguing his case on its merits. This illustrates that maritime law has its own unique features and tests that federal courts apply in determining whether an individual has the right to bring legal action. At this point, it will become a matter of the court deciding the case based upon arguments made by both sides.

One of the most well-known U.S. laws involving the rights of commercial mariners is the Jones Act. This federal law applies across the board to workers on U.S. flag vessels. It covers ferry captains, oil tanker engineers, tugboat deckhands, fishing trawler cooks, and just about anyone else in-between. Application of the Jones Act hinges upon whether an employee satisfies a legal test for something known as “seaman status.”
A federal court recently confronted this issue of seaman status in connection with an individual who worked aboard a family’s yacht. He had been hired to handle various maintenance and repair work. Sometime thereafter, the employee moved into the role of captain on a part-time basis while continuing to handle maintenance and repair duties. He eventually became the vessel’s full-time captain.
While in the process of moving the yacht one day, this captain fell about seven feet onto a concrete pier, landing on his elbows. He underwent a number of surgeries. A few months after the accident, he was terminated by the family. Several months after his termination, the captain filed suit against the family for medical expenses.
Under the Jones Act, expenses for medical care are one of the benefits that are covered. They fall under maintenance and cure, which is the maritime term for living expenses and medical expenses, respectively. In this regard, maritime law is similar to shoreside systems in which an injured person is compensated. For instance, with workers’ comp, the primary recognized benefits are lost wages and medical expenses.
The yacht owner filed a motion to dismiss the captain’s case. A motion is essentially a request for a court to take action on something. It could be a request for a court to render a decision on an issue, such as whether a certain piece of evidence will be admissible at trial. In federal and state litigation, a commonly used motion is for dismissal of an action, as is the case here. Such a motion could stop a lawsuit in its tracks.
Here, the motion went to the issue of whether the captain was a “seaman.” This issue had been established by the Supreme Court, which set forth a two-part test governing whether a marine employee is considered a seaman under the Jones Act. The first prong of this test looks to whether the employee’s duties “contribute to the function of the vessel.” The second prong requires the employee must “have a connection to a vessel in navigation…that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature. Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 368 (1995).  
For old ship buffs, the name Chandris could ring a bell because they’re the company that bought the liner America after its distinguished career with United States Lines, which operated America’s spectacular sibling, United States. Under the Chandris flag, the America became the Australis. Australis, ultimately renamed American Star by its final owners, met a sad fate foundering on a reef in the Canary Islands during a tow.
In the lawsuit involving the yacht captain, the court was interested in the Chandris case because it provided the standard for determining seaman status. The court looked at the captain’s allegations that he moved the vessel between ports and arranged for repairs. That satisfied the first element of the test, which was about contributing to the function of a vessel.
As for the second element of the test, the court looked at the U.S. Supreme Court’s position that employees who spend less than roughly 30% of their time in the service of a vessel in navigation do not qualify as seamen. The court felt that living aboard the yacht and working in a full-time capacity performing cleaning, maintenance and repair duties satisfied the second element of the test as to “duration and nature.”
In applying this two-part test for “seaman status,” the court did not grant the motion to dismiss the captain’s lawsuit. That meant he was free to move forward in arguing his case on its merits. This illustrates that maritime law has its own unique features and tests that federal courts apply in determining whether an individual has the right to bring legal action. At this point, it will become a matter of the court deciding the case based upon arguments made by both sides.

One of the most well-known U.S. laws involving the rights of commercial mariners is the Jones Act. This federal law applies across the board to workers on U.S. flag vessels. It covers ferry captains, oil tanker engineers, tugboat deckhands, fishing trawler cooks, and just about anyone else in-between. Application of the Jones Act hinges upon whether an employee satisfies a legal test for something known as “seaman status.”
A federal court recently confronted this issue of seaman status in connection with an individual who worked aboard a family’s yacht. He had been hired to handle various maintenance and repair work. Sometime thereafter, the employee moved into the role of captain on a part-time basis while continuing to handle maintenance and repair duties. He eventually became the vessel’s full-time captain.
While in the process of moving the yacht one day, this captain fell about seven feet onto a concrete pier, landing on his elbows. He underwent a number of surgeries. A few months after the accident, he was terminated by the family. Several months after his termination, the captain filed suit against the family for medical expenses.
Under the Jones Act, expenses for medical care are one of the benefits that are covered. They fall under maintenance and cure, which is the maritime term for living expenses and medical expenses, respectively. In this regard, maritime law is similar to shoreside systems in which an injured person is compensated. For instance, with workers’ comp, the primary recognized benefits are lost wages and medical expenses.
The yacht owner filed a motion to dismiss the captain’s case. A motion is essentially a request for a court to take action on something. It could be a request for a court to render a decision on an issue, such as whether a certain piece of evidence will be admissible at trial. In federal and state litigation, a commonly used motion is for dismissal of an action, as is the case here. Such a motion could stop a lawsuit in its tracks.
Here, the motion went to the issue of whether the captain was a “seaman.” This issue had been established by the Supreme Court, which set forth a two-part test governing whether a marine employee is considered a seaman under the Jones Act. The first prong of this test looks to whether the employee’s duties “contribute to the function of the vessel.” The second prong requires the employee must “have a connection to a vessel in navigation…that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature. Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 368 (1995).  
For old ship buffs, the name Chandris could ring a bell because they’re the company that bought the liner America after its distinguished career with United States Lines, which operated America’s spectacular sibling, United States. Under the Chandris flag, the America became the Australis. Australis, ultimately renamed American Star by its final owners, met a sad fate foundering on a reef in the Canary Islands during a tow.
In the lawsuit involving the yacht captain, the court was interested in the Chandris case because it provided the standard for determining seaman status. The court looked at the captain’s allegations that he moved the vessel between ports and arranged for repairs. That satisfied the first element of the test, which was about contributing to the function of a vessel.
As for the second element of the test, the court looked at the U.S. Supreme Court’s position that employees who spend less than roughly 30% of their time in the service of a vessel in navigation do not qualify as seamen. The court felt that living aboard the yacht and working in a full-time capacity performing cleaning, maintenance and repair duties satisfied the second element of the test as to “duration and nature.”
In applying this two-part test for “seaman status,” the court did not grant the motion to dismiss the captain’s lawsuit. That meant he was free to move forward in arguing his case on its merits. This illustrates that maritime law has its own unique features and tests that federal courts apply in determining whether an individual has the right to bring legal action. At this point, it will become a matter of the court deciding the case based upon arguments made by both sides.

 

Tim Akpinar is a New York based maritime attorney and has taught law at SUNY Maritime College.

 

 

 

 

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