Are Offshore Rigs Jones Act Vessels?
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 Offshore Oil Rig Workers?
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 in navigation.
Other Requirements for Jones Act Vessels & Seamen
The Jones Act requires that vessels which travel between United States ports must 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 are a Jones Act seaman or not, 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 needed.
Call us today for a free consultation at (888) 346-5024 to learn your options. If we take your case, you’ll only pay a fee if we win, so there's no risk.