Man who puts to sea may not be 'a seaman'

June 15, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, trying to settle the rights of workers injured on board or near vessels, ruled yesterday that a worker who goes to sea is not necessarily a seaman.

"A maritime worker does not become a member of a crew as soon as a vessel leaves the dock," the court ruled 6-3 in spelling out when a worker qualifies as a "seaman" under a federal injury benefits law -- the Jones Act of 1920.

The Jones Act gives those who qualify as seamen a right to sue the employer for negligence when the worker is injured on the job, and to sue the owner and the vessel itself for unseaworthy conditions. The law does not, however, define "seaman."

The court, rejecting the idea that taking a voyage automatically makes a worker a seaman, outlined instead a new two-part formula.

The formula, it said, is designed to ensure that maritime workers do not "walk into and out of coverage" of the Jones Act during their regular duties.

The formula: First, a worker must do tasks that contribute to a vessel's function or its "mission." Second, a worker must be connected in a "substantial" way and for a "substantial" period of time to a vessel.

Under that approach, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said for the court majority, a worker who qualifies as a seaman will usually be assured of coverage under the Jones Act. The worker will thus be covered even if he or she is hurt while the boat is temporarily tied up in port, or is hurt on shore while away from the vessel.

"Maritime workers who obtain seaman status," the majority said, "do not lose that protection automatically when on shore and may recover under the Jones Act whenever they are injured in the service of a vessel, regardless of whether the injury occurs on or off the ship."

And, by the same token, the majority noted, a worker who happens to be aboard a vessel when it goes to sea is a seaman only if that status has been reached under the two-part formula.

The court sent back to a lower court for another look at the case of Antonios Latsis, of Rye, N.Y., who worked as a supervising marine engineer for a fleet of cruise ships. While on a voyage that had sailed from Baltimore in 1989, en route to Bermuda, he suffered an eye injury that took away 75 percent of the vision in the eye.

He claimed a right to sue the vessel owner, Chandris Inc., under the Jones Act. A jury concluded that he was not a seaman. That issue will be reopened when the case returns to the lower courts.

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