Fifth Circuit Says Tension Leg Platform Not a Vessel; Worker Constructing Platform Not Entitled to Benefits Under Valladolid
An offshore floating tension leg platform is not a vessel, according to the U.S. Fifth Circuit’s recent decision in Baker v. Director, OWCP, 15-60634 (5th Cir. 8/19/16).
The issue in Baker involved whether a worker injured during the construction of an offshore platform was entitled to benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. The claimant was injured in a waterside marine fabrication yard in Houma, Louisiana, while building a housing module for Big Foot, a structure being constructed an offshore tension leg platform. The parties stipulated that the Houma fabrication yard constituted a maritime situs under the LHWCA, meaning that the worker could recover benefits if he possessed status as a maritime worker. The Fifth Circuit explained that a worker is involved in maritime employment if he is a ship repairman, shipbuilder or ship-breaker, or if he is engaged in activities that are an integral or essential part of the loading or unloading of a vessel. Therefore, the claimant’s entitlement to benefits in Baker hinged on whether Big Foot was a vessel.
The Fifth Circuit noted the following characteristics of Big Foot:
“Big Foot, like other TLPs, is a type of offshore oil platform used for deep water drilling; the parties concede that Big Foot was not built to regularly transport goods or people. Its various parts were constructed in several locations: its base, which is capable of flotation, was built in Korea; its operations modules were built in Aransas Pass, Texas; and its living quarters were built in Houma, Louisiana. All of these components were transported to Ingleside, Texas for assembly—a process that often takes several months, if not years. Although Big Foot can float, it is not capable of self-propulsion, has no steering mechanism, does not have a raked bow, and has no thrusters for positioning once on location. Once completed, Big Foot was scheduled to be towed to a location approximately two hundred miles off the coast of Louisiana and anchored to the sea floor by over sixteen miles of tendons. Anytime it is under tow, Big Foot will be tended to by a crew that is employed to control Big Foot during the voyage. Once anchored, Big Foot will serve as a work platform for the life of the oil field, which is estimated to be twenty years.”
In determining whether Big Foot was a vessel, the Fifth Circuit relied upon two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Stewart v. Dutra Constr. Co., 543 U.S. 481 (2005) and Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, 133 S. Ct. 735 (2013). The Fifth Circuit explained that the Supreme Court determined in Stewart that a watercraft is a vessel if it is used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water. Lozman restricted this definition, reminding that not every floating structure is a vessel. The Court in Lozman held that a floating home was not a vessel because “[b]ut for the fact that it floats, nothing about Lozman’s home suggests that it was designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water.” Lozman, 133 S. Ct. at 741.
Relying on these precedents, the Fifth Circuit found that Big Foot was not a vessel. The Fifth Circuit noted that “Big Foot will not be used to transport equipment and workers over water in the course of its regular use. … In fact, Big Foot is only intended to travel over water once in the next twenty years—the voyage to its operational location on the OCS.” The court noted that Big Foot had no means of self-propulsion, no steering mechanism or rudder, and lacked a raked bow.
The claimant advanced another argument for benefits, relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Pacific Operators Offshore, LLP v. Valladolid, 132 S. Ct. 680 (2012). In Valladolid, the Supreme Court allowed a worker to obtain workers’ compensation benefits under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, even if the worker was not injured on the Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”). The Court held that the worker only need establish a “substantial nexus between the injury and extractive operations on the [OCS] to qualify” for benefits. While Big Foot had a “future purpose” of extracting natural resources from the OCS, the Fifth Circuit held that, in constructing a portion of Big Foot on land, the claimant’s activities were “too attenuated” from that future purpose. The Fifth Circuit observed that the claimant’s employment would never require him to go to the OCS, and his employer would have no role in moving Big Foot to its eventual location on the OCS.
Baker v. Director, OWCP, 15-60634 (5th Cir. 8/19/16)
Cataracts allegedly caused by exposure to electric arc welding in a worker permanently assigned to a vessel under repair are covered under the Act, according to the Benefits Review Board.
The claimant was hired under a “crew member agreement” on July 21, 2008, to work aboard the Pacific Glacier, which had returned to port for repairs following a fire some months before. While in drydock, the fire damage was repaired, but the Pacific Glacier also underwent various upgrades including enlarging the wheelhouse and moving it up one level, adding sponsons, and removing and replacing electronics as part of a system upgrade. When hired, the claimant was told he was only helping to rebuild the ship, he would not be a member of the crew when the Pacific Glacier returned to sea. During the repairs, the claimant worked as a fire watch for welders, did stripping, painting and cleaning, and loaded and unloaded equipment with a forklift and crane. Unexpectedly, at the conclusion of the repairs, the employer hired the claimant for sea duty, and he went to sea for the employer for about the next 10 months.
Not long after the claimant stopped working for the employer, he learned he had vision problems. He filed a claim alleging that he developed cataracts as a result to exposure to electric arc welding during his fire watch duties aboard the Pacific Glacier. The administrative law judge found the claimant’s cataracts were caused, at least in part, by his employment while the vessel was in the shipyard. The ALJ also found jurisdiction under the Act, because the Pacific Glacier was “not in navigation” during its repair time in the shipyard, when the claimant’s exposure occurred.
The Board affirmed the finding that the vessel was not in navigation; the employer did not contest the medical causation issue. As to whether a vessel under repair is “in navigation,” the Board explained that the “question in all cases is whether the watercraft’s use for maritime transportation is a practical possibility or merely a theoretical one.” Further, “[s]hips being transformed over extended periods of time through ‘major’ overhauls or renovations may lose their status as vessels in navigation until they are rendered capable of maritime transport.” Whether a vessel remains in navigation during repairs is a factual question. The Board explained that “[i]n assessing whether a vessel is in navigation, ‘the focus should be upon the status of the ship, the pattern of the repairs, and the extensive nature of the work contracted to be done.’” The Board accepted the ALJ’s finding that the repairs were “extensive” and exceeded those necessary to return the vessel to sea. The repairs and improvements took more than a year to complete and involved major system upgrades and structural modifications, which involved changes to the dimensions and buoyancy of the hull. These changes made navigation improbable during the time of these repairs. Further, much of the crew transferred to other vessels. “For these reasons, the administrative law judge concluded that the pattern of the repairs, the extensive nature of the repair work, and the status of the ship all supported a finding that the Pacific Glacier was not in navigation at the time of claimant’s injury.”
Tounkara v. Glacier Fish Company, BRB No. 15-0217 (1/28/16)
© 2018 Ira J. Rosenzweig