Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

The Test for Seaman Status: The Supreme Court Muddies the Waters Again

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

The Test for Seaman Status: The Supreme Court Muddies the Waters Again

Article excerpt

On June 14, 1995, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis,(1) revising for the second time in four years the much-contested standard for Jones Act(2) seaman status. A worker seeking Jones Act coverage now must show that, in addition to doing the ship's work,(3) he has a connection to a vessel or fleet that is substantial, both in nature and in duration.(4) By leaving some traditional seamen vulnerable to the perils of the sea, the Latsis test is inconsistent with the policy of the Jones Act.

The Jones Act provides remedies for injured seamen, allowing them to sue their employers for negligence.(5) Seamen are not covered by state compensation systems; instead, activities on the water are covered by admiralty.(6) Traditionally, maritime law has sought to foster commerce by protecting investors and shipowners, often at the expense of seamen.(7) Until this century, maritime law had precluded seamen's recovery beyond maintenance and cure.(8)

The Jones Act, enacted in 1920, was an attempt to help seamen by providing them with legal remedies for injuries caused by the negligence of their employers.(9) Debate over who should receive those remedies, however, has created nearly as many problems as the Jones Act has served.(10) Although some workers clearly qualify as seamen, the courts have had difficulty distinguishing other seamen from land-based workers.(11) The Jones Act's generous remedies(12) have made seaman status a hotly contested and frequently litigated issue for injured workers and their employers.(13)

The Supreme Court, in 1991, attempted to define seaman status in McDermott International, Inc. v. Wilander.(14) Wilander resolved the conflict between two popular approaches to the issue,(15) one from the Fifth Circuit(16) and the other from the Seventh.(17) The Court left many questions unanswered and confusion continued in the lower courts.(18) In Latsis, the Court amended the Wilander definition of seaman status, further restricting the scope of the Jones Act.(19) By shifting the boundaries of seaman status, the Court has reduced potential liability for maritime employers and closed remedies to injured seamen. The Latsis opinion will have far-reaching effect.

In applying the Jones Act, Justice Cardozo wrote in Warner v. Goltra(20) that "the purpose of [the] statute must be read in the light of the mischief to be corrected and the end to be attained."(21) In Latsis, the Court has purported to do just that. This Note assesses the judiciary's success in explaining the purpose of the Jones Act and in correcting the mischief that it was designed to remedy. By reviewing the background of the Jones Act and the case law leading up to the Wilander decision, this Note analyzes judicial interpretation of the Act's purpose. Through a critical discussion and comparison of Wilander and Latsis, this Note demonstrates the Court's mistakes in crafting its new definition of seaman. Finally, drawing on the history of Jones Act jurisprudence, this Note suggests a more appropriate approach to seaman status.

The Supreme Court needs to enunciate a more complete test for seaman status rooted firmly in the policy considerations of the Jones Act. This test should distinguish between land-based and sea-based employees by granting seaman status to those attached to a vessel at sea, without further consideration. The test should direct application of the factors identified in Latsis and Wilander to more ambiguous situations.

Background of the Jones Act

In 1896, Patrick Shea, a crew member aboard the propeller Osceola, was struck and injured by a falling derrick.(23) This accident began nearly a century of litigation over legal remedies for seamen and the eligibility of workers to receive these remedies. Shea sued the Osceola's owners for the master's negligence in ordering the use of the derrick at open sea.(24) In denying Shea's claims, the Supreme Court severely limited a seaman's ability to recover for his injuries. …

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