Solo Ship Worker Was Still “Crew” Member Under Jones Act, Not LHWCA, Showed Jones Act Attorney
It’s important, noted a US Labor Department representative at a recent maritime safety conference in New Orleans, for a Jones Act attorney to be “part of the process of drawing useful lines between the Jones Act and the longshore workers act [LHWCA].” The representative was discussing the way the Labor Department has had to, as he put it, “pay attention to getting our longshore decisions right.” One policy under discussion is the (now) longstanding rule about how much discretion the Labor department has had in deciding when someone is either a seaman or a longshoreman. Many of the rules were hammered out in a Supreme Court decision, where a Jones Act attorney helped shape the LHWCA, too.
The question in the case, noted the Jones Act attorney, was whether Samuel Grant, called a bargeman, was entitled to compensation under either the Jones Act or the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA). Medical evidence obtained by his Jones Act attorney showed that Grant was hurt when a capstan bar, used to shift the barge at a pier, pulled out, hitting him full on the chest and causing him to fall. If Grant was a “master or member of a crew of any vessel,” then he would have had the rights of the Jones Act, because such jobs are expressly excluded from the coverage of the LHWCA, noted the Jones Act attorney.
The Deputy Commissioner found that Grant was a harbor worker, and not a “master or member of a crew,” and applied the LHWCA. The federal court of Appeals reversed, however, saying Grant was covered by the Jones Act, (in other words, said the Jones Act attorney, “was a seaman”) and not the LHWCA. The Jones Act attorney appealed to the Supreme Court.
Grant, noted the Jones Act attorney, was employed as a boatman on a barge that at the time of the injury was afloat on the navigable waters of the United States. The barge had no motive power of its own, and moved by towing or winding up of a cable, using a capstan. The Jones Act attorney also noted the oddities of calling the barge a “sea vessel,” which although “documented as a vessel of the United States,” it never went to sea, and was confined in its operations to a thirty miles radius.
The Jones Act attorney noted that the LHWCA system is broken up into compensation districts, with Deputy Commissioners reviewing the programs in each district. The Act gives Deputy Commissioners “full power and authority to hear and determine all questions in respect of compensation claims.” The findings of the Deputy Commissioner were once considered to be virtually final, but the Jones Act attorney emphasized many cases where courts had ample reason to overrule a mistake by the Commissioner. This, the Jones Act attorney noted, was going to be such a case.
Commissioner’s Error Described As Being “Major” By Jones Act Attorney
Historically, courts had given a large degree of finality to administrative decisions about who gets LHWCA coverage. A Jones Act attorney noted this “finality” was meant to help seamen, who would be hurt if the process were allowed to drag on. But, as the Jones Act attorney also noted, there were differences of opinion about whether the LHWCA was “better” for seamen than the Jones Act. In fact, the effort to bring a master and members of a crew under the LHWCA was successfully opposed by most of the union reps of maritime employees. And the maritime unions also filed a legal brief in Grant’s case, opposing LHWCA benefits to Grant under the facts, noted the Jones Act attorney.
Jones Act Attorney Will Help Decide How Jones Act Rules Match LHWCA Rights
The purpose of the LHWCA legislation, observed the Jones Act attorney, was to protect those who “are mainly employed in loading, unloading, refitting, and repairing ships.” Grant, pointed out the Jones Act attorney, seemed to do no work of the type usually called longshoring. Grant’s duties were “different” from usual “crew” work only inasmuch as they were shaped by the vessel’s own requirements. In other words, the Jones Act attorney showed Grant’s work was that of a seaman, regardless of the purpose of the vessel. The employment contract (introduced by the Jones Act attorney) showed Grant’s pay was for “services to safeguard and operate the barge fleet.”
The US Supreme Court finally agreed with the Jones Act attorney, and even went a bit further, saying “(O)nly by a distorted definition of the word ‘crew,’ as used in the LHWCA, could Grant be restricted to the remedy which it affords, and excluded from recovery under the Jones Act or be denied relief in admiralty.”
Experts in labor safety have noted the important role of a Jones Act attorney in this case. In fact, many believe that regardless of the type of maritime injury, an experienced Jones Act attorney is crucial for an injured seaman. The Labor expert said “Many ‘longshoremen’ have been surprised to find out they really were covered by the Jones Act,” and—after medical treatment—needed an expert Jones Act attorney most of all.