Usually, it is easy to determine what is called a maritime accident. If it falls under the maritime rubric, then the case will be heard in federal court and the Jones Act will apply. If it is not a maritime case, then it may be heard in state court and the Jones Act will not apply. The case of Stewart v. Duntra Construction, decided by the United States Supreme Court in 2005, was such a case in which determining whether there was a “maritime” accident was not so simple.
The Big Dig
During the 1990s, the state of Massachusetts sought to extend the Massachusetts Turnpike by digging a tunnel underneath Boston Harbor. This project was known as the “Big Dig.” To assist in digging up the tunnel, the state employed Duntra Construction, the owners of the “Super Scoop.” The Super Scoop was a massive dredge that floated on the water and had a clamshell scoop suspended underneath the water.
The Super Scoop was manned by a captain and crew, but had limited self propulsion. It seemed to be a quasi seafaring vessel.
Duntra Construction hired Willard Stewart, a marine engineer, to work the mechanical aspects of the Super Scoop. While working near the Super Scoop’s engine, a move by the Super Scoop caused him to fall through an opening and land headfirst. This caused Stewart to suffer a serious injury, and as a result, Stewart sued for negligence.
Specifically, Stewart sued for compensation under the Jones Act, claiming that he was a “seaman” under the Act. Alternatively, Stewart sued for negligence under the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act or LHWCA.
Jones Act and LHWCA Suits
Under the Jones Act, an employee is barred from suing the company for negligence because it is assumed that the plaintiff assumed the risk of vessel employment. Under the LHCWA, someone can sue for negligence but cannot be a member of the veseel’s crew.
At trial, the District Court ruled that the Super Scoop is not a “vessel” under the Jones Act. Although it floats on the water, the Court noted that its purpose was to dredge. However, it would qualify as a vessel under the LHCWA because it floated, which is confusing. The Court ruled that Duntra is not obligated to Stewart because, at the time of him hurting himself, Duntra was acting in an employer capacity and not in an owner capacity.
The case eventually made it to the United States Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Case
The Supreme Court, citing previous case law, concluded that it was a vessel under the definition. The idea is that the definition of vessel is based on its ability to float. The primary purpose is not relevant. Nor does that vessel need self propulsion. The Super Scoop’s mode of travel is not relevant. Therefore Stewart, as a member of the crew, was entitled to sue for compensation under the Jones Act.
Have you been injured in a maritime accident? Speak with a law firm that is both experienced and knowledgeable in maritime law. Contact the Kolodny law firm.