Texas State Court of Appeals Holds that Federal Court’s Decision on Issue of “Seaman” Status in FLSA Case Was Not Binding in Jones Act Case

When it comes to Dallas area employment lawsuits, such as wage and hour claims, it is important to consider not only the issues in a case currently facing an employer but also the potential implications of the employer’s position in the current case if other lawsuits or claims are filed later.

Otherwise, an employer’s argument in one case could be used against it in another case.

Facts of the Case

In a case recently considered on appeal, the primary issue was whether the plaintiff was a “seaman” for purposes of filing a claim under the Jones Act (also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920). According to the plaintiff’s allegations, he was injured while performing work for his employer during the conversion of an ice class barge into a floating offshore installation vessel that would be capable of responding to offshore oil spills. The plaintiff’s accident happened as he was exiting an “intermodal shop container” located onshore.

The defendant employer filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff was not a seaman for purposes of the Jones Act. In support, the defendant asserted that the plaintiff was a shore-based welder and that the vessel upon which the plaintiff was working at the time of his accident was not “in navigation” as required under the Act. The trial granted summary judgment to the defendant, dismissing the plaintiff’s claims with prejudice.

Decision of the Court

On appeal to the Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas, the plaintiff pointed out that he and others had filed a federal lawsuit against the defendant to recover wages that they were allegedly owed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and that, in that suit, the defendant had successfully argued that the plaintiff was not eligible for overtime pay because he was a seaman. Although the federal court in that suit had found that the vessel that the plaintiff was working on when he was injured was a vessel in transportation, the state court of appeals held that it was not bound by the federal court’s ruling because the FLSA and the Jones Act were separate statutes with different tests for determining whether a litigant was, in fact, a seaman.

Nevertheless, the court of appeals went on to agree with the plaintiff that the defendant employer had failed to conclusively show that he was not a Jones Act seaman, at least for purposes of summary judgment. According to the court, reasonable people could disagree on whether the vessel in question was capable of transportation at the pertinent time, and this was a determination best left to the trier-of-fact (i.e., the jury) at trial.

The appellate court disagreed with the defendant’s contention that it was, alternatively, entitled to summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiff’s work on the vessel did not contribute to the accomplishment of its mission. Although the defendant characterized the plaintiff’s work as having taken place in an offshore warehouse, the appellate court noted that the plaintiff had participated in multiple sea trials of the vessel and had been described as “part of the vessel crew” by the defendant’s vessel manager.

Consult a Dallas Employment Law Attorney

At Key Harrington Barnes, we are prepared to represent Dallas area employers with regard to many different types of employment-related litigation brought by current or former workers. If your business needs dependable legal advice, call us now to set up an appointment. You can reach us at 214-615-7925. Please remember that it is best to contact counsel sooner, rather than later, if you suspect that your business is about to be sued or face an administrative claim.

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