Vessel Status: What Is the Law?

Maritime law can be complex and involve many legal terms regarding “seaman status”, “maintenance and cure” and “vessel status.” The following post breaks down the definition of a “vessel” under the law. Why is this important to your case? Whether a watercraft is construed as a vessel can affect your claims under the Jones Act. Below is an analysis of the current state of the law on the issue of “vessel status.”

The law as to what constitutes a “vessel” was significantly expanded by the U.S. Supreme Court in Stewart v. Dutra.  In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically held that “a vessel is any watercraft practically capable of maritime transportation, regardless of its primary purpose or state of transit at a particular moment.”  Stewart v. Dutra Const. Co., 543 U.S. 481, 497, 125 S.Ct. 1118, 1129 (U.S. 2005).  This was a significant departure from the Fifth Circuit’s prior (and much more restrictive) multi-factor test.  Holmes v. Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc., 437 F.3d 441, 448 (5th Cir. 2006) (“As noted, Stewart has significantly enlarged the set of unconventional watercraft that are vessels under the Jones Act and the LHWCA: “Under § 3, a ‘vessel’ is any watercraft practically capable of maritime transportation, regardless of its primary purpose or state of transit at a particular moment.” Consistent with Stewart’s expanded definition of that term, we have no trouble concluding that the BT-213 is a vessel.”).  Despite this, Defendant primarily relies on pre-Stewart case law which no longer applies.  Instead of relying on Defendant’s outdated case law, the Court should look to Stewart and Holmes to determine whether the Thunder Horse is a “capable of maritime transportation.”

The Stewart Court specifically found that “a watercraft need not be in motion to qualify as a vessel.”  Id. at 495.  This is because “a ship long lodged in a drydock or shipyard can again be put to sea, no less than one permanently moored to shore or the ocean floor can be cut loose and made to sail.”  Id. at 496.In fact, “[l]ooking to whether a watercraft is motionless or moving is the sort of ‘snapshot’ test [the Supreme Court] rejected in Chandris.”  Id. at 495.  As a result, “a structure’s locomotion at any given moment” is wholly irrelevant.  Id. at 496.Consequently, much of Defendant’s affidavit is irrelevant and the Court should deny summary judgment.  In Holmes v. Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc., the Fifth Circuit held that an unpowered floatable quarter barge was a vessel within the meaning of Stewart v. Dutra.  437 F.3d 441, 445 (5th Cir. 2006).

In Holmes, the subject barge, the BT-213, floating dormitory barge that was moored at the time the plaintiff was injured.  Id. at 444.  Like the present case, the defendant in Holmes challenged vessel status.  The Fifth Circuit applied the Stewart v. Dutra standard to the BT-213 and concluded it was a vessel.  Id. at 449.  That is, the Fifth Circuit found that the BT-213 was “practically capable of movement” even though it was moored at the time of the incident and had no means of self propulsion.  Id. at 448 (“Whether the primary purpose of the BT-213 is to transport the housing modules, and the fact that it happened to be moored to the bank at the time of Holmes’s accident, are of no moment.”).  In fact, the Court used the many similarities that the BT-213 had in common with vessels as reasons to the hold the BT-213 itself was a vessel.  Id. (“In addition, the BT-213 possesses a number of the objective characteristics of a vessel. As stated above, it has a raked bow and ‘two end tanks where the rakes are … for flotation.’ The BT-213 is fitted out with vessel-like gear (such as traditional mooring devices, bits or bollards or cleats) for securing it to the shore or to other vessels by lines or hausers.”).   For more information regarding jones act and maritime cases, please contact us. We have the experience and knowledge necessary to handle your case. We have obtained millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements for clients injured offshore.

Pierce | Skrabanek PLLC

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Pierce | Skrabanek PLLC. is a Houston-based law firm. We handle a wide range of personal injury cases, specializing in truck accidents, maritime or offshore injury cases and auto accidents. Learn more about our attorneys here.

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