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When is a seaman covered by the Jones Act for injuries on land?

In order to qualify for coverage under the Jones Act and other general maritime law remedies, a seaman must be in the service of the vessel at the time of the injury or illness.  Whether a seaman is in the service of the vessel, is a recurring issue in maritime injury litigation, but is broadly construed by the courts in favor of coverage for the seaman.

The responsibility of vessel owners to seamen for maintenance, cure, and unearned wages is to be construed “broadly, when an issue concerning … scope arises”.  Aguilar v. Standard Oil Co., 318 U.S. 724, 729 (1943).  The U.S. Supreme Court held, “the words ‘in the course of his employment’ as used in the Jones Act were not restricted to injuries occurring on navigable waters, … they were broadly used by Congress in support of ‘all the constitutional power it possessed’”.  Braen v. Pfeifer Oil Transp. Co., 361 U.S. 129, 130-31 (1959).  “[T]he nature and foundations of the liability require that it be not narrowly confined or whittled down by restrictive and artificial distinctions defeating its broad and beneficial purposes.  If leeway is to be given in either direction, all the considerations which brought the liability into being dictate it should be in the sailor’s behalf.”  Aguilar, 318 U.S. at 735.

Whether a seaman is “in the course of employment” is a function of “1) the degree of control the employer-vessel owner had over the seaman at the time of injury; and 2) whether the seaman, at the time of injury, was on personal business or on a mission for the benefit of his employer or attending to the business of the employer.”  Lee v. Mississippi River Grain Elevator, Inc., 591 So.2d 1371, 1373 (La. App. 1991).

Courts have consistently held that a seaman need not be onboard the vessel in order to be in the “course of employment.”  Aguilar, 318 U.S. 724; Braen, 361 U.S. 129; Williamson v. Western Pacific Dredging Corp., 441 F.2d 65, 66 (9th Cir. 1971).  “When the seaman’s duties carry him ashore, the shipowner’s obligation is neither terminated nor narrowed,” and responsibility of the shipowner “should not be narrowed to exclude from its scope characteristic and essential elements of that work.”  Aguilar, supra at 732, 735.  In holding vessel owners liable for on-shore injuries, the Aguilar court cautioned against “cast[ing] upon the seaman hazards encountered only by reason of the voyage.”  Id. at 733.

Indeed, ingress and egress are just the type of “hazard encountered only by reason of the voyage” that courts have held is in the course of employment.  Id. at 733; Braen, 361 U.S. 129; Pensiero v. Bouchard Transp. Co., 2008 AMC 363 (E.D.N.Y. 2007).  There is no meaningful distinction between seamen that live on the vessel and seamen that live ashore in the context of ingress and egress; both types of seamen must gain access to the vessel.  Pensiero, supra.  “[W]here the brown-water seaman is on a direct path to resume his duties on board, and is injured on that path, there is no reason to create [a distinction between brown-water and blue-water seamen].”  Id.

Even commuting, when the seaman is acting for the benefit of the employer or is under the control of the employer, is within the “course of employment.”  Williamson, 441 F.2d at 66 (Seaman injured in car accident while commuting was in the course of employment because “commuting was part of the job [the seaman] was employed to perform”); Vincent v. Harvey Well Service, 441 F.2d 146, 147-49 (5th Cir. 1971) (Injury in car accident 40 miles from vessel while commuting was in the course of seaman’s employment because the vessel “had no quarters suitable for sleeping, eating or relaxing during off-duty shift hours. The men physically had to leave the rig daily…  In all of this the employer had a most vital interest.”).

In light of the broad construction of the term “course of employment” and relevant case law, it is important to consult with an experienced maritime lawyer even when you are injured on land.  Depending on the specific circumstances of your case, you may be entitled to coverage under the Jones Act and general maritime law.