In the recent issue of Long Island Boating World, Tim covers the
rights of a yacht crew in an accident involving employment aboard a
Court Applies “Seaman Status” Test for Yacht Captain
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
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
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