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Fifth Circuit rules floating dorm is a Jones Act vessel.

Withdrawing its own earlier opinion in the case of an injured barge cook, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit has ruled that a floating dormitory for dredge workers is indeed a vessel under the Jones Act, allowing the cook's case to go forward. (Holmes v. Atlantic Sounding Co., Nos. 04-30732, 04-30750, 2006 WL 133537 (5th Cir. Jan. 19, 2006).)

Addie Holmes worked on the BT-213, a floating barge equipped with housing and dining facilities for use by workers on dredging projects. Holmes alleged that as she put her belongings in her locker on the barge, the locker and a TV placed on top of it fell on her, injuring her. She sued the companies that owned and operated the BT-213 as well as their insurers, alleging that the barge was unseaworthy and that she was a seaman under the Jones Act. She sought damages as well as maintenance and cure.

A district court determined that the BT-213 was not a vessel under the Jones Act, so Holmes could not recover. Unlike a traditional vessel, the BT-213, which is towed from place to place by tugboats, is not inspected by the Coast Guard, has no captain, engineer, or deckhand, and has few items usually found on vessels (such as winches, radar, and a compass). When the accident occurred, the barge was moored at Holly Beach, Louisiana, on the Gulf of Mexico.

Ruling on appeal last October, a Fifth Circuit panel initially agreed with the district court (429 F.3d 174 (5th Cir. 2005)) in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year in Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co. (125 S. Ct. 1118 (2005)). In that case, a marine engineer was injured when the scow he was working on was hit by a dredge that he normally worked on. The engineer claimed he was a seaman because the dredge was a vessel under the Jones Act and the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA).

In an attempt to "resolve confusion over how to determine whether a watercraft is a 'vessel' for purposes of the LHWCA," the Supreme Court noted that 1 U.S.C. [section] 3 defines a vessel as a watercraft "'used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water'.... It does not require that a watercraft be used primarily for that purpose." The Court found that for the purposes of both the Jones Act and the LHWCA, [section] 3 defines what a vessel is and that the dredge qualified.

In its initial opinion, the Fifth Circuit panel found that Stewart had rejected prior courts' reliance on two factors in determining whether a watercraft was a vessel: whether its primary purpose was navigation or commerce and whether it was in transit at the time in question. The panel concluded that, even after Stewart, the BT-213 was not a vessel because it did not meet other criteria established in prior Fifth Circuit rulings, including that the watercraft could transport cargo and was designed for navigational and transportation purposes.

But in January, after Holmes's lawyer filed a motion for rehearing, the panel threw out its earlier decision and determined that Stewart had expanded the definition of a vessel by concluding that "under [section] 3, a 'vessel' is any watercraft practically capable of maritime transportation, regardless of its primary purpose or state of transit at a particular moment." The panel concluded that "whether the primary purpose of the BT-213 is to transport 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."

Although Holmes still has to prove that she is a seaman under the Jones Act, her attorney, Victor Marcello of Gonzales, Louisiana, is pleased with the new ruling.

"The entire oral argument [for the original decision] centered on Stewart," he said. "I thought when I left the courtroom that this was, to quote [former CIA Director] George Tenet, a slam dunk and I couldn't lose. But I did.

"This is a very significant case in the Fifth Circuit," he continued, "because in the oil industry, there are many different types of structures where the issue of vessel status determines the outcome of the case."

Stewart clarified what had been a big point of contention about the definition of a vessel, Marcello said.

"I think it's pretty clear from Stewart that the definition of a vessel applies to both Jones Act cases and LHWCA cases: What is a vessel for one is a vessel for the other, and vice versa."
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Author:Jablow, Valerie
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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