Jones Act Lawsuit Fails Under Seaman Claim

“Plaintiff Lost at Seaman Claim”
Robert Teaver may have fancied himself a man of the sea but the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana that there was no way he could establish his status as a “seaman” for purposes of the Jones Act.

When dealing with litigation, especially when making a claim under a premise, words mean everything. To clarify, words mean specific things and those specific definitions are everything. Robert Teaver attempted to sue his employer under the Jones Act. The Jones Act was crafted to protect seamen who are injured in the course of their employment. This statute lays out the elements that must be met in order for a potential plaintiff to file a successful suit under it. Robert Teaver was a crane operator and installer for Seatrax of Louisiana, Inc. This company makes and installs cranes for offshore drilling platforms. Mr. Teaver’s work took him over water but he was not employed on a maritime vessel.

Mr. Teaver’s first assignment put him on the M/V Chermie, a boat owned by L&M BoTruc Rental, Inc. Mr. Teaver and his brethren were to eat and sleep aboard this vessel during the three days that they were out on this assignment. The team was to disassemble a portable crane on an oil platform 90 miles of the coast of Louisiana. The platform was owned by Mariner, Inc.

Mr. Teaver received injuries that left him permanently paralyzed less than 24 hours into his employment with Seatrax. He fell about 19 feet on to a gangbox, a type of toolbox. Mr. Teaver filed a claim in Louisiana state court under the Jones Act. This would prove to be a mistake. Mariner removed the suit to federal court under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Federal question jurisdiction was invoked. Mr. Teaver tried to remand the action to state court with no success.

Mr. Teaver was not a seaman as defined in Chandris, Inc. v. Latis, 515 U.S. 347, 369 (1995). The court in Chandris held that to qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act a plaintiff must establish that “(1) his duties ‘contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission,’ and (2) he has ‘a connection to a vessel in navigation (or an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.’”
The seaman must be a member of a vessel’s crew and not just a land-based employee who happens to be on the vessel. The coincidental nature of Mr. Teaver’s presence on the M/V Chermie is not enough to qualify him as a seaman. Louisiana case law prevents a person whose relationship with a given vessel or set of vessels is simply “transitory and fortuitous” from filing suit under the Jones Act. Mr. Teaver did not contribute to the function of the Chermie. He did not take direction from its captain. The Cheramie was simply a supply vessel. The Seatrax workers were not “borrowed servants” under any agreement between Seatrax and Mariner or L&M. No such agreement existed.

Mr. Teaver tried several reaching arguments in an attempt to distinguish his case from the cases that set the precedents in this area of law. The trial court did not agree with his arguments nor did the appeals court after reviewing his arguments de novo. Mr. Teaver may have done himself a disservice by attempting to file suit under the incorrect statute. Had he been successful, having his case defined as a Jones Act case would prevent it from being removed to federal court. There must have been some reason that Mr. Teaver wanted to keep the litigation in state court. Hopefully he has not wasted his chance for justice and compensation by trying the wrong legal maneuver for the situation.

To read more about Mr. Teaver’s ill-fated nautical journey read the case here.