We previously wrote that, in order to be a seaman, an employee’s job duties must “contribute to the function of a vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission,” and he must have a substantial connection to a vessel or fleet of vessels. This two-part test begs the question: what is the relevant time period for purposes of evaluating seaman status?
Seaman Status Hinges on Essential Job Duties
In Harbor Tug & Barge Co. v. Papai, 520 U.S. 548, 556-57 (1997), the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that an employer may not need to examine “the employee’s entire course of employment with his current employer.” If an employee’s essential job duties change, the relevant time period may commence on the date of the change.
For example, someone who had worked for years in an employer’s shoreside headquarters and was immediately injured after being reassigned to a ship should not automatically be denied seaman status. See Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 372 (1995). Likewise, an employee that was transferred to a desk job after a career of vessel service should not be permitted to claim seaman status after being injured in a hallway. Id.
A reassignment in essential job duties may alter whether or not the employee contributes to the function of any vessels or the accomplishment of their missions. It may also change whether the employee has a connection to any vessels that is substantial in both duration (i.e. using 30% as a rule of thumb) and navigation (i.e. being subjected to the perils of the sea).
Employers Should Look at Job Duties
The lesson here is that employers should look at their employees’ job duties—among other factors—when evaluating potential seaman status. However, due to the complexities of the seaman status test and potential traps for the unwary, consultation with an attorney is always recommended.
Allen & Gooch is providing this legal update for informational purposes only. This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion as to any specific facts or circumstances. You should consult your own attorney concerning your particular situation and any specific legal questions you may have.