A disabling workplace injury can be a nightmare for an employee who suffers physical pain, mental side effects, loss of income, and the uncertainty of litigation. And when large sums of money are involved, an employer will want to fight tooth and nail to avoid liability. This can be particularly distressing when an employee wins at trial only to find the decision has been appealed.
However, there is hope. Unless there has been a blatant error or abuse of discretion, a court of appeal will not want to overturn a factual conclusion or damage award from the trial court. Generally, that means an appeal will center around a question of law. See, e.g., Lasha v. Olin.
Sometimes the legal question is whether an injured worker qualifies for relief under a law. For example, an employee seeking coverage under the Jones Act must be classified as a seaman. To be one, your duties must “contribute to the function of the vessel or the accomplishments of its mission.” Determining who is a seaman under the Jones Act is a hotly contested issue, as seen in the case below.
Ernest Lee Guidry was severely injured while serving on a crew to install new shoreline protection (a bulkhead) in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Guidry’s primary role had been to weld pilings for the support structure, which he did from a floating mat. This was Guidry’s first assignment for his employer’s marine division, and it required him to spend 60% of his time on the floating mat. Guidry spent another 30% of his day on the fleet’s barges, preparing materials and performing various support tasks.
In the district court, Guidry was awarded over $3.8M for debilitating injuries he sustained when he was struck with a vibratory hammer and launched into the water. Guidry’s employer responded with an appeal to Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal, challenging its liability under the Jones Act. That triggered an appellate review of whether Guidry satisfied the See Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis test, the gold standard for determining if an employee is a seaman under the Jones Act.
The Chandris test first checks if the individual contributed to the function or mission of a vessel or fleet. Since the mission was to build a bulkhead, Guidry indeed contributed by welding the support structure. The second question is whether the employee had a connection to the fleet for a “substantial duration,” or at least 30% of his time. Again, Guidry outperformed this element with 90% of his workday occurring on the water.
The final question is whether the employee’s contributions reflected a connection to the fleet that was “substantial in nature.” The Court of Appeal found Guidry had a substantial connection to the fleet. He was a supporting crew member on the barges and a key construction team member on the floating mat, which was a critical part of the fleet. Notably, Guidry’s former assignments on land pre-dating the bulkhead project were not considered applicable to the Chandris test.
Thus, the Court of Appeal affirmed that Guidry was a seaman covered by the Jones Act and refused to question the district court’s discretion regarding damages. It was a happy ending for an individual who had endured a great personal struggle, and a testament to what good legal help can achieve when an injured plaintiff is attempting to navigate the complex web of laws and dynamics of our court system.
Additional Sources: Ernest Guidry v. ABC Insurance Company
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Emily Toto
Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Jones Act Injury Claims: Appeals Court Upholds Jones Act Claim for Seaman Injured Off Gulf Coast