Supreme Court Rejects ‘Seaman’ Case

OCEAN CITY — One week after hearing arguments in a case that could ultimately have local implications, the U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to take up the debate on the definition of a “seaman” for the purposes of determining if an individual can sue an employer for negligence when injured on the job under the long-accepted Jones Act.

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the definition of a seaman in terms of time spent actually working on a vessel at sea and exposed to the dangers that entails, and time spent working on and around docks and marinas. With countless commercial and recreational vessels in and around the resort area, the high court’s ruling on the definition of a working seaman was watched closely locally. However, the Supreme Court has announced it would not take up the debate and uphold the earlier decisions of the Circuit Court and Appeals Courts in Maryland.

The specific case under consideration by the highest court in the land revolved around a Chesapeake Bay pilot who often worked escorting captains and workers to and from large commercial vessels offshore. In 2008, harbor pilot William Dize was diagnosed with advanced respiratory illness after contracting lung disease while sandblasting a vessel on shore. Dize ultimately died from lung disease and his wife sued his employer, the Association of Maryland Pilots, for negligence.

The case was tried in Circuit Court, which decided Dize was not working as a seaman at the time he contracted the disease, and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and the higher Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the lower court’s decision. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court took up the debate of whether or not Dize was working a seaman at the time he contracted the disease that claimed his life, but the high court last week announced it had declined to take up the case and deferred to the state’s Appeals Court opinions.

Under the Jones Act, a maritime worker may pursue a cause of action against an employer for injuries incurred within the scope of employment if the worker is deemed a “seaman.” However, the definition of a seaman is largely unclear except in terms of an individual who is “regularly exposed to the perils of the sea.”

The Supreme Court has developed a two-pronged test to distinguish a seaman from land-based maritime workers. Under those tests, the employee must contribute to the function of a vessel or to the accomplishment of the vessel’s mission. Secondly, the employee must have a connection to the vessel in navigation that is substantial in both nature and duration.

As a rule of thumb, the accepted standard is that the employee must spend at least 30 percent of his or her time aboard the vessel. Time that an employee spends maintaining a vessel ashore or dockside should not be counted in the formula as they are not sea-based duties that expose the employee to the “perils of the sea.”

In the case at hand, Dize worked an employee of the Association of Maryland Pilots in a variety of capacities, some of which caused him to work on vessels at sea and at other times at the dock or in a marina maintaining vessels, cleaning or repairing the boats, buying supplies and groceries for the fleet and other duties not directly related to the water.

According to his own testimony, Dize spent only about 20 percent of his work time on a vessel at sea and another 50 percent or so of his time on maintenance, including painting, sanding, changing propellers and other parts, refueling the vessels and performing other tasks in and around port. In 2008, Dize was diagnosed with silicosis after suffering breathing difficulties which required supplemental oxygen in order to live. When Dize succumbed to the illness, his widow sued the Association of Pilots under the Jones Act, claiming his employer was negligent in regards to the injuries he suffered from exposure to silica during a sandblasting project.