According to the Centers for Disease Control, the maritime transportation industry has a fatality rate that is 4.7 times higher than other jobs. Oil rig workers take on even more risk because of the inherent dangers of drilling. These workers end up seriously injured at a much higher rate.
Offshore oil workers will usually have a way to file a claim against their employer for negligence or a maintenance & cure claim for their injuries. The question is what law applies and whether they must go through the workers’ compensation system.
Getting the right benefits for your workplace injuries can require more complicated legal maneuvers than you might believe, especially through a Jones Act claim.
The Jones Act Allows You to Sue an Employer for Negligence
Congress passed the Jones Act in 1920 to strengthen the domestic shipping industry. Building a robust shipping capability was considered a matter of national security after World War I. Encouraging shipping required workers willing to bear the risks of the well-known dangers of working at sea. At that time, maintenance & cure was the common law doctrine that had been in place for centuries. Injured workers were entitled to their living and medical expenses when they suffered an injury at sea until they recovered from their injuries.
The Jones Act added essential protection for injured workers. When their employer has been negligent, the employee can file a personal injury lawsuit against them. Personal injury lawsuits are a better outcome for injured employees because they can get more compensation than they will in a maintenance and cure claim. For example, injured workers can get their full lost wages and compensation for pain and suffering.
For offshore oil workers, the question is what law applies when they have suffered an injury on the job. How they are protected depends on where they work and where the location of the injury was.
An Oil Rig Is Considered a Vessel for a Jones Act Lawsuit
The Jones Act protects seamen who work on a vessel. The question is whether an oil rig is a vessel affixed to the ocean floor. The rig is not involved in transportation, even though it is permanently at sea. However, the United States Supreme Court shed light on the matter in a critical 2005 decision that explained the definition of the word “vessel” in the Jones Act.
According to the statute, the term vessel means:
“[E]very description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.”
The Supreme Court had to clarify the definition. In the past, the Jones Act did not cover vehicles that were not powered to float. The Supreme Court changed this in the case of Stuart v. Dutra Construction, Inc. The worker suffered an injury on a dredge, and the defendant claimed the Jones Act did not apply because the worker suffered an injury while working on a dredge not used in transportation.
The Court removed the requirement that a vessel is self-propelling. Now, offshore oil rigs are subject to the Jones Act. However, another federal law may apply, taking away some rights of injured oil rig workers to file a personal injury lawsuit.
Location of the Rig and Injury Is Crucial in a Jones Act Claim
The Jones Act does not always apply to injured oil rig workers, but it does not mean they are stripped of their rights to sue their employer for negligence. How the injured worker can sue depends on where the oil rig stands. Some oil rigs are not in the territorial waters of a state. The rules will differ when a worker suffers an injury on an oil rig located on the Outer Continental Shelf. These are lands that lie seaward of the state’s water boundaries.
Different rules will apply if an oil rig worker suffers an injury on a rig on the Outer Continental Shelf. A workers’ compensation type system protects workers, but they will be unable to sue the employer for negligence. Only the Jones Act allows that.
What law applies is where things can get very confusing. The law that governs workers’ compensation is called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The law itself does not clearly say when it applies. Presumably, workers who cannot get relief under general maritime law or the Jones Act can do so under OCSLA. However, it is not always clear when the Jones Act may cover the injured workers.
Situations like these are where you need an excellent maritime lawyer with a working knowledge of all the statutes. Your lawyer can help determine how you can get compensation and will work to find any arguments that can bring you under the Jones Act, where you can file a personal injury lawsuit. They may also develop general maritime law grounds, such as failing to provide a seaworthy vessel.
Blue Water versus Brown Water Workers
In a Jones Act case, there is a distinction between a blue water and brown water seaman. A blue water seaman works on an oceangoing vessel. They will spend all their time on the boat, sleeping on it at night. A brown water seaman works on a boat during the day but goes home at night or has shorter voyages.
Blue and brown water seamen have some coverage under the Jones Act. Both can file a claim under the Jones Act when they suffer an injury on the vessel. The significant difference is whether the injured seaman is acting “within the course of their employment” for purposes of the Jones Act.
Factors that Differentiate Between a Blue and Brown Water Worker
A blue water seaman will always be on duty. They may even file a claim when injured on shore leave or on their way back to the boat. A brown water seaman has more limited rights. Court cases have looked at several factors for when the brown water seaman can file a claim for an injury suffered when they are not on their boat.
These factors include whether:
- The employee was on a direct route to resume her duties on the vessel
- The employee will have been subject to discipline if she did not arrive
- The employee’s return was for both her and the vessel owner’s benefit
- The seaman was under vessel owner supervision when injured,
- The vessel owner owned or had control over the injury site
- The seaman received a travel stipend
Many injured seamen have coverage denied when not on the boat. For example, one Wisconsin court denied a claim for maintenance & cure when a seaman injured herself stepping on a depression in the sidewalk while returning to her boat. The court denied coverage because she did not receive a travel stipend and was not under the employer’s supervision at the time of the injury.
The Jones Act Usually Does Not Protect Land-Based Workers
Not all oil workers in the offshore industry work at sea. Some are land-based and spend less than 30 percent of their time on the vessel. Many workers whose job duties are maintenance or support still suffer workplace injuries. The Jones Act will not protect these workers, but they still have the legal ability to obtain some workers’ compensation for their injuries.
There is a statute that covers harbor workers. The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act covers land-based maritime workers. However, this statute does not allow you to file a lawsuit for an employer’s negligence. You can receive no-fault workers’ compensation for your injuries. The LHWCA may also give you a quicker turnaround time for compensation because you will not need to go through the lawsuit process.
The Jones Act May Cover Some Land-Based Workers
Other legal issues are involved when a covered worker suffers an injury on land. Even if your injury did not occur on the vessel, you might still be eligible for Jones Act protection. However, there are some requirements that you somehow risk the perils of the sea. In a recent case, the Fifth Circuit clarified when land-based workers might receive coverage as seamen under the Jones Act.
In Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Texas, a federal appeals court upheld a district court’s ruling that the Jones Act did not cover a worker. According to the Fifth Circuit, this particular worker was “not engaged in sea-based work that satisfied the requirement that he have a [substantial connection] to a fleet of vessels in terms of the nature of his work.”
In this case, the plaintiff spent his time on two jack-up drilling rigs. He was a welder doing repair work on rigs that were jacked up to a dock so that the barge was level with the dock and separated from it by a gangplank. All he needed to do was take two steps on the gangplank, and he will be ashore.
In a significant opinion, the Fifth Circuit found that the plaintiff did not face the ongoing exposure to the sea, nor did he face the dangers inherent in ocean work. Even though he worked on a rig, it was not as dangerous as a drilling rig located in ocean waters.
Additional Factors Besides the Peril of the Sea Test
However, there is more to deciding whether an injured worker is a seaman than just exposure to the perils of the sea.
According to the Fifth Circuit, there are additional relevant factors that include:
- Whether the worker owes his allegiance to a vessel rather than a shoreside employer
- Whether the work is sea-based or involves seagoing activity
- Whether the worker’s assignment to a vessel is limited to the performance of a discrete task
Under this analysis, an offshore oil rig worker will be covered by the Jones Act, as long as the rig was not on the Outer Continental Shelf. Even some inland marine workers can meet this test, but the circumstances in which they can qualify occur less often.
The Court May Consider Additional Factors
Even if you qualify as a seaman, it is still not the end of the inquiry about whether you qualify for Jones Act coverage.
Then, a court will look into your specific situation to see if you can file a lawsuit, asking some of the following questions:
- Did you work for one employer, or were you an independent contractor? (the latter cannot sue)
- Was your injury within the scope of your employment?
- How much time did you spend on the oil rig?
If you have learned anything from the above information, it is that you cannot quickly draw any conclusions about whether the Jones Act covers you. Any attorney will try to take the facts of your situation and see if they can fit them within Jones Act coverage.
Even if you cannot, you will not remain without options for financial compensation. Besides getting the medical treatment you need, one of the first things you do after a maritime workplace injury is to contact an attorney with extensive Jones Act experience.
Given the extensive body of law and wide range of outcomes, you should not trust your case to an attorney who does not specifically know the Jones Act. It is safe to say that courts’ interpretations of these laws are frequently evolving, and you need an attorney well-versed in how judges currently view Jones Act coverage. The analysis of whether the Jones Act applies can be highly complex and may be the subject of heated debate at trial.
Regardless of your situation, you need the right attorney on your side following a work injury on an oil rig. Benefits for injured oil workers are complicated, as there might be different sources of payment and multiple claims to file. Whether you need to file a Jones Act claim, a third-party injury claim, or both, you want the right lawyer on your side.
Seek legal help with your Jones Act case as soon as possible after your injury.