Court Determines if Injured Temp Qualifies Under Jones Act

Kerry Becnel was injured while working on a barge, but his relationship with the vessel is not clear cut, making it difficult to determine whether he was a seaman under the federal Jones Act. In Becnel v. Chet Morrison, Inc., No. 2010-CA-1411 (La. Ct. App. 4 Cir. 8/31/11), the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the St. Bernard 34th Judicial District Court and sent the case back for trial.

Becnel was a cook on a quarters barge owned by Chet Morrison Contractors, Inc. (CMC). One night in 2005, he was walking from one barge to another to reach a water taxi used to get to his living quarters. Before he reached the water taxi, he fell several feet into the water. Becnel claimed that “there was no safety device, railing, chain, rope, or other safety feature to prevent falling from the side of the vessel,” and the owner knew this. To add to the danger, the only light near where he fell was not working. He said he could not avoid the danger because he could not see it.

Becnel sued his employer, Coastal Catering, L.L.C., which had contracted Becnel’s services to CMC. He also sued CMC and the companies’ insurers. The battle became one between the companies and their insurers. Coastal’s insurer, State National Insurance Co. (SNIC), claimed that Coastal’s maritime general liability insurance policy did not cover CMC’s potential liability for Becnel’s injuries, but the district court decided it did.

CMC sought recovery against Coastal for Coastal to compensate and defend CMC’s claim against Becnel. CMC argued before the district court that the legal definition of a seaman was enough to show that Becnel was a seaman under the Jones Act. It sought resolution in summary judgment, a means to resolve issues without trial when no genuine issue of material fact complicates the analysis. Coastal and SNIC disagreed.

The district court agreed with CMC’s motion that no factual dispute prevented Becnel from being considered a seaman under the protection of the Jones Act. It also found that CMC was an additional insured under Coastal’s insurance policy with SNIC. Coastal and its insurers have since settled their claims with Becnel.

Insurer SNIC and employer Coastal appealed the district court decision. They asked the court of appeal whether any disputed facts would prevent the district court from concluding that Becnel was a Jones Act seaman. If there were disputed facts, the question would need to go to trial.

To answer the question, the court of appeal analyzed the Jones Act and cases that have explained its coverage. The federal Jones Act allows a seaman who suffered personal injury while employed to qualify for additional means of recovery for damages and a jury trial. The trial is to be located in the court assigned to the district where the employer resides or has its principal office.

But, what is a seaman? The U.S. Supreme Court case of Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis sets out a two-part test for whether someone is a seaman covered under the Jones Act. The first question is “whether the employee’s duties contributed to the function of the vessel or accomplishment of its mission.” The second question is “whether that employee had a connection to a vessel in navigation which was substantial both in terms of duration and nature.”

The first question is easy to answer in most cases. “[A] maritime employee who does the ship’s work falls within the purview of the Jones Act.” This includes “[a]ll who work at sea in the service of a ship.” Becnel was working as a cook on the quarters barge. The parties didn’t appear to dispute that Becnel contributed through his work. Becnel worked 17-hour days preparing three meals, cooking, and cleaning in a galley. These tasks were undisputed, and they were enough so that the first part of the Chandris test was not in dispute. Summary judgment, so far, was OK.

But, the second test was more difficult to resolve and ultimately required choosing among too many disputed facts for a reviewing court to decide (see Part 2).

The right to a jury trial for personal injuries may be the difference that allows recovery for a seaman’s injury. In a specialized economy in which services are provided by third parties, it may be difficult to determine whether one is considered a seaman under the Jones Act. Becnel’s circumstances provide a warning. A trained lawyer will be able to ask the right questions to find out the important facts and how they affect your case.

If you have been harmed by the acts of another, call the Berniard Law Firm toll free at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help you get the recovery you deserve.