Up until 2005, the Jones Act gave a very narrow definition of a vessel. Since the act was created in 1920, the majority of courts allowed more traditional vessels that the average person would consider a ship. However, as drilling offshore for oil and other resources has become more and more popular, so did drilling rigs located offshore. By 1949, offshore rigs for drilling oil began to look more like the rigs that we see today. Rigs were able to be contained on a single barge, but it still took another five decades before the court would define what vessels fell under the Jones Act.
2005 Definition of a Vessel
In the case of Stewart vs. Dutra Construction, the Supreme Court finally defined what vessels and seamen are under the Jones Act. Part of their decision confirmed that a dredge is a vessel. This also meant that the engineer who was injured while working on a dredge engine was entitled to file a claim against his employer.
The employer argued in the case that a dredge was not actually a vessel in navigation, which the Jones Act requires. Instead, they considered it a work platform. They also claimed that the engineer was not a seaman because he was not a part of the crew while the dredge was in operation.
Answers to Questions
Because of these claims, SCOTUS had to answer two questions. What exactly is a vessel, and when is a worker on vessel considered a seaman under the Jones Act?
- Definition of a Vessel – The Supreme Court determined that the Jones Act did not define a vessel or a seaman so the worker’s claim was indeed valid. They defined a vessel as every type of a watercraft or any other type of artificial contrivance that is being used or is capable of being used for transportation on water.
- Definition of a Seaman – When determining who had protection as a seaman under the Jones Act, the Supreme Court had a more difficult time making a decision than they did when determining what constituted a vessel. The original law only called workers seamen without actually clarifying what gave them the title. Eventually SCOTUS decided that a worker could be considered a seaman if the work they were doing contributed in any way to the function or mission of the vessel.
What This Means for Offshore Workers
Even though SCOTUS determined that a vessel is basically anything that moves on water and that a seaman is more broad than the vessel’s crew, there was still one question that needed an answer. Does a vessel need to be in motion for a claim to be filed by a seaman under the Jones Act?
The court gave the answer to this question by saying that the locomotion, or movement, of the vessel mattered at any given moment when it was described as in navigation. Instead, the point was that a structure loses its character as a vessel if they are placed out of the water for an extended period of time. This means that a vessel is considered in navigation even if it is stationary while in the water. This also means that an offshore oil rig is considered a Jones Act vessel.
Contact an Experienced Maritime Law Attorney
The attorneys at Kolodny Law Firm specialize in maritime law and can help you if you have been injured on an offshore oil rig or other type of vessel. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.
(image courtesy of Oliver Paaske)