498 U.S. 337 (1991), 89-1474, McDermott International, Inc. v. Wilander

Docket Nº:No. 89-1474
Citation:498 U.S. 337, 111 S.Ct. 807, 112 L.Ed.2d 866, 59 U.S.L.W. 4091
Party Name:McDermott International, Inc. v. Wilander
Case Date:February 19, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 337

498 U.S. 337 (1991)

111 S.Ct. 807, 112 L.Ed.2d 866, 59 U.S.L.W. 4091

McDermott International, Inc.



No. 89-1474

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 19, 1991

Argued Dec. 3, 1990




Respondent Wilander, a paint foreman injured at work while assigned to a "paint boat" chartered by petitioner McDermott International, sued McDermott under the Jones Act. The Act provides a cause of [111 S.Ct. 808] action in negligence for "any seaman" injured "in the course of his employment," but does not define "seaman." McDermott moved for summary judgment, alleging that, as a matter of law, Wilander was not a "seaman." The District Court denied the motion, and the jury entered an award for Wilander, finding, inter alia, that the performance of his duties contributed to his vessel's function or to the accomplishment of its mission, and therefore satisfied the Fifth Circuit's test for seaman status. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, refusing to abandon its test in favor of the Seventh Circuit's more stringent standard, which, in effect, requires that a "seaman" aid in the navigation of the vessel.

Held: One need not aid in the navigation of a vessel in order to qualify as a "seaman" under the Jones Act. Pp. 341-357.

(a) In the absence of contrary indication, it may be assumed that the Jones Act's failure to define "seaman" indicates a congressional intent that the word have its established meaning under general maritime law at the time of the Act's passage. Pp. 341-342.

(b) At the time of its passage in 1920, the Jones Act established no requirement that a seaman aid in navigation. Although certain early cases had imposed such a requirement, a review of later cases demonstrates that, by 1920, general maritime law had abandoned that requirement in favor of a rule requiring only that a seaman be employed on board a vessel in furtherance of its purpose. Pp. 343-346.

(c) The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) -- which was enacted in 1927 and provides recovery for injury to a broad range of land-based maritime workers, but explicitly excludes from its coverage "a master or member of a crew of any vessel" -- does not change the rule that a seaman need not aid in navigation. That Act and the Jones Act are mutually exclusive, such that a "seaman" under the Jones Act is the same as a "master or member of a crew of any vessel." Swanson v. Marra Brothers Inc., 328 U.S. 1, 7. Although the LHWCA exception thus refines the Jones Act term "seaman," restricting

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it to sea-based maritime employees, it does not indicate that members of a crew are required to navigate. Pp. 346-348.

(d) The conflict addressed here has as its source this Court's inconsistent use of an aid in navigation requirement in LHWCA and Jones Act cases. That requirement slipped into the Court's case law in South Chicago Coal & Dock Co. v. Bassett, 309 U.S. 251, 260, an LHWCA case decided before the Court recognized in Swanson, supra, that the two Acts are mutually exclusive. Although the Court subsequently ruled in another pre-Swanson LHWCA case, Norton v. Warner Co., 321 U.S. 565, that the Bassett aid in navigation test was not to be read restrictively, and that navigation under the test embraces duties of a "member of a crew" that are essential to the operation and welfare of his vessel, a series of post-Swanson Jones Act cases either asserted an aid in navigation requirement or relied on Bassett even though they afforded seaman status to claimants working on board vessels whose jobs had no connection to navigation, see, e.g., Butler v. Whiteman, 356 U.S. 271. Such cases have engendered confusion and have led the lower courts to a myriad of standards and lack of uniformity in administering the elements of seaman status. Pp. 348-353.

(e) The time has come to jettison the aid in navigation language. The better rule -- the rule that best explains the Court's case law and is consistent with the pre-Jones Act interpretation of "seaman" and Congress' land-based/sea-based distinction in the two Acts -- is to define "master or member of a crew" under the LHWCA, and therefore "seaman" under the Jones Act, not in terms of the employee's particular job, but solely in terms of the employee's connection to a vessel in [111 S.Ct. 809] navigation. A necessary element of the connection is that a seaman perform the work of a vessel, i.e., that the employee's duties contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission. Pp. 353-355.

(f) The question of who is a "seaman" under the Jones Act is better characterized as a mixed question of law and fact than as a pure question of fact for the jury. It is for the court to define the proper legal standard and for the jury to find the facts and apply that standard. The narrow question presented here -- whether Wilander should be precluded from seaman status because he did not perform transportation-related functions on board the vessel -- is a question of law that must be answered in the negative. Pp. 355-357.

887 F.2d 88 (CA5 1989), affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether one must aid in the navigation of a vessel in order to qualify as a "seaman" under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C.App. § 688.


Jon Wilander worked for McDermott International as a paint foreman. His duties consisted primarily of supervising the sandblasting and painting of various fixtures and piping located on oil drilling platforms in the Persian Gulf. On July 4, 1983, Wilander was inspecting a pipe on one such platform when a bolt serving as a plug in the pipe blew out under pressure, striking, Wilander in the head. At the time, Wilander was assigned to the American-flag vessel M/V Gates Tide, a "paint boat" chartered to McDermott that contained equipment used in sandblasting and painting the platforms.

Wilander sued McDermott in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, seeking recovery under the Jones Act for McDermott's negligence related to the accident. McDermott moved for summary judgment, alleging that, as a matter of law, Wilander was not a "seaman" under the Jones Act, and therefore not entitled to recovery. The District Court denied the motion. App. 19. In a bifurcated trial, the jury first determined Wilander's status as a seaman. By special interrogatory, the jury found that Wilander was either permanently assigned to, or performed a substantial amount of work aboard, the Gates Tide, and that the performance of his duties contributed to the

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function of the Gates Tide or to the accomplishment of its mission, thereby satisfying the test for seaman status established in Offshore Co. v. Robison, 266 F.2d 769 (CA5 1959). App. to Pet. for Cert. 16-17. The District Court denied McDermott's motion for judgment based on the jury findings. Id. at 10-16.

The case then proceeded to trial on the issues of liability and damages. The jury found that McDermott's negligence was the primary cause of Wilander's injuries, but that Wilander had been 25% contributorily negligent. The jury awarded Wilander $337,500. The District Court denied McDermott's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, id. at 19-21, and both parties appealed.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the determination of seaman status, finding sufficient evidence to support the jury's finding under the Robison test. 887 F.2d 88, 90 (1989). McDermott asked the court to reject the Robison requirement that a seaman "contribut[e] to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission," Robison, supra, at 779, in favor of the more stringent requirement of Johnson v. John F. Beasley Construction Co., 742 F.2d 1054 (CA7 1984). [111 S.Ct. 810] In that case, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit -- relying on cases from this Court requiring that a seaman aid in the navigation of a vessel -- held that seaman status under the Jones Act may be conferred only on employees who make "a significant contribution to the maintenance, operation, or welfare of the transportation function of the vessel." Id. at 1063 (emphasis added).

The Fifth Circuit here concluded that Wilander would not meet the requirements of the Johnson test, but reaffirmed the rule in Robison and held that Wilander was a "seaman" under the Jones Act. 887 F.2d at 90-91. We granted certiorari, 496 U.S. 935 (1990), to resolve the conflict between the Robison and Johnson tests on the issue of the transportation/navigation function requirement, and now affirm.

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In 1903, in The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158, this Court summarized the state of seamen's remedies under general maritime law. Writing for the Court, Justice Brown reviewed the leading English and American authorities and declared the law settled on several propositions:

1. That the vessel and her owners are liable, in case a seaman falls sick, or is wounded, in the service of the ship, to the extent of his maintenance and cure, and to his wages, at least so long as the voyage is continued.

2. That the vessel and her owner are, both by English and American law, liable to an indemnity for injuries received by seamen in consequence of the unseaworthiness of the ship. . . .

3. That all the members of the crew . . . are, as between themselves, fellow servants, and hence seamen cannot recover for injuries sustained through the negligence of another member of the crew beyond the expense of their maintenance and cure.

4. That the seaman is not allowed to recover an indemnity for the negligence of the master, or any member of the crew. . . .

Id. at 175. The Osceola affirmed a seaman's general maritime right to maintenance and cure, wages, and...

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