Are Offshore Rigs & Platforms Jones Act Vessels?
Offshore oil and gas production is complex, involving many different players and facets. Essentially, the industry involves two main tasks: extracting the materials and transferring them to a refinery to be prepared for sale. These tasks involve two main types of different yet equally important equipment: vessels and platforms (also called rigs).
Platforms are stationary structures while vessels are large ships responsible for transporting oil, supplies, and personnel. However, some vessels, such as drilling rigs, obscure the line between vessel and platform by taking on the duties of both.
What Are Oil Platforms?
Colloquially known as oil rigs, oil platforms are large stationary structures placed offshore to extract, process, and temporarily store oil and natural gas until it is transported onshore. Most oil platforms are fixed to the ocean floor by braces or consist of an artificial island if large enough. Others, known as floating vessels, serve as processing and storage platforms for nearby stationary platforms. Maritime offshore oil platforms are some of the largest moveable structures in the world.
There are many different drilling and storage rigs:
- Fixed Platforms (Concrete or Steel Legs)
- Compliant Towers (Flexible)
- Jack-Up Drilling Rigs (Mobile Drilling Units)
- Drillships (Vessel)
- Tension Leg Platforms (TLP)
- Spar Platforms (Moored)
While oil platforms are primarily responsible for extracting oil and gas, these valuable materials must be transported onshore in order to be refined and prepared for actual use. That is where the role of vessels comes into play.
Are Oil Platforms Legally Considered Vessels?
Often, those who are injured while working on a vessel are not certain if they are covered under the Jones Act. To determine whether or not your case is eligible for a Jones Act claim, it is important to understand how a "vessel" is defined under the law.
When it was first passed in the 1920s, the Jones Act covered a limited number of vessels. These vessels included cargo ships, tugboats, barges and cruise ships. However, as maritime technology has advanced over the last 90 years, the definition of a vessel under the Jones Act has been forced to evolve and be redefined. In a 2005 ruling, the Supreme Court defined the word vessel as “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water."
This decision had sweeping implications regarding the application of the Jones Act in cases involving maritime injuries. Due to old definitions of what constitutes a vessel, lower courts often ruled that structures such as jack-up and semi-submersible rigs, mobile offshore drilling units, dredges, and pontoon rafts did not qualify as vessels. However, since the 2005 Supreme Court decision, vessels are no longer required to be self-propelled (the defining quality of a seafaring vessel for decades).
Before 2005, a Jones Act vessel had a narrow definition. Since the enactment of the Jones Act in 1920, most courts allowed Jones Act claims for more traditional vessels, or what most people would call ships. However, as offshore drilling technology transformed, so did the appearance of offshore drilling rigs. By 1949, offshore drilling rigs began to resemble the behemoths they would become today. For the first time, offshore rigs were able to be contained on a single barge. Eventually, as with many older laws, it took another five decades before a definitive ruling would clarify if offshore rigs were Jones Act vessels.
The SCOTUS 2005 Vessel Definition
After a 2005 decision in Steward vs. Dutra Construction, the Supreme Court of the United States clearly defined what Jones Act seamen and vessels are. In an 8-0 decision, SCOTUS confirmed that a dredge is a Jones Act vessel. So, when an engineer suffered severe injuries while working on a dredge’s engine, he filed a Jones Act claim against his employer.
However, the employer argued that its dredge was not a vessel in navigation as required by the Jones Act. Instead, it argued that the dredge was a work platform because it had a specific job of digging in the Boston Harbor. It also argued that the engineer was not a seaman because he was not a part of the dredge’s crew while it was in operation.
Because of this, SCOTUS had to answer two questions:
- What is a vessel?
- When is a worker on a vessel considered a Jones Act seaman?
The SCOTUS Definition of a Vessel
The Supreme Court decided that the Jones Act failed to clearly define what a vessel is and who a seaman is, so the worker’s claim was valid. According to the Court, a vessel is defined as “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”
The SCOTUS Definition of a Seaman
When determining who should be labeled a seaman with Jones Act protections, SCOTUS had a slightly more difficult job than it did with the determination of a vessel. This is because the original law only called workers seamen without clarifying what made them so. Eventually, the court decided that a maritime worker may be considered a seaman if their work on a vessel contributed in some way to the “vessel’s function or mission.”
What Does This Case Mean for Workers on Oil Rigs & Platforms?
Even though the court decided that a vessel is essentially anything that can move on water and broadened the title of seaman beyond a vessel’s crew, there was still one question: does a ship need to be in motion for a seaman to file a Jones Act claim?
The Court clarified this issue by saying that, “Granted, the Court has sometimes spoken of the requirement that a vessel is ‘in navigation,’ but never to indicate that a structure's locomotion at any given moment mattered. Rather, the point was that structures may lose their character as vessels if they have been withdrawn from the water for extended periods of time.” This statement clarified that a vessel is in navigation even if it is stationary in the water.
Thus, offshore oil rigs are Jones Act vessels because, even though they are stationary, they are capable of navigation.
Other Types of Common Types of Vessels Used in the Offshore Industry
As platforms and rigs extract or pump oil and gas upward from the ground, vessels contribute to the industry by providing a form of transport. Depending on the type of vessel, this portion of the oil and gas industry provides the access, manpower, and supplies needed to ensure every other aspect of the industry continues to perform efficiently.
There are different types of vessels responsible for different tasks:
- Oil Tanker: Oil tankers are merchant ships designed for transporting large amounts of oil from platforms to land.
- Platform Supply Vessel: Just as the name suggests, these vessels are primarily designed to provide supply transportation to and from oil platforms. Supplies include cargo such as fuel and chemicals as well as support, including specialty tools.
- Tugboats / Towboats: These vessels are small, powerful machines that pull or push oil platforms, barges, and disabled ships to and from shore.
Other Requirements for Jones Act Vessels & Seamen
The Jones Act requires vessels that travel between United States ports to be registered as American ships. It also states that crew members of these ships must be American citizens or legal residents. Finally, all Jones Act vessels should have American ownership and should be built in the United States.
If you suffered injuries and are uncertain whether you’re a Jones Act seaman, help is available. Arnold & Itkin has the maritime law experience needed to fight for workers injured while working offshore. We've won billions of dollars, helping our clients get the medical care, lost income, and financial support they need.
Call us today for a free consultation at (888) 346-5024 to learn your options.