Marsh Buggy Doesn't Support Admiralty Jurisdiction
On February 9, 2023, in the case Griffin v. Specialized Environmental Resources, Inc., an environmental remediation employee's Jones Act and general maritime law claims were dismissed on procedural grounds. The ruling stands out because the marsh buggy worker/alleged Jones Act seaman did not establish that the Court had subject matter jurisdiction.
Plaintiff was employed as a seismic driller helper for Specialized Environmental Resources, Inc. ("SER") assigned to a field project in Port Naches, Texas. Plaintiff took soil samples by inserting pipes into the soil from a marsh buggy owned by SER. The marsh buggy was a custom-made amphibious tracked vessel designed to operate on land, swampland and marshland flooded with up to two feet of water. The marsh buggy was propelled solely by its two tracks. It was not moved by an accompanying vessel.
While on this project, Plaintiff had a daily 40-minute commute to get to the marsh buggy. Plaintiff arrived at a boat landing on the Naches River to board a support boat with two outboard engines. The support boat navigated a channel to take plaintiff to a smaller body of water, where he would transfer to an airboat to drive him to the marsh buggy.
On June 9, 2019, plaintiff was working on a pipe in his marsh buggy when a driller hit a lever that caused the pipe to move unexpectedly injuring plaintiff's right hand. Plaintiff brought a Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act ("LHWCA") claim against SER that was ultimately settled. On January 1, 2021, plaintiff sued SER in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana under the Jones Act and general maritime law. SER filed a motion for summary judgment to have plaintiff's claims dismissed. SER argued that plaintiff could not establish that (i) the marsh buggy is a vessel, (ii) the marsh buggy operated on navigable waters, or (iii) that plaintiff had a sufficient connection to a specific vessel. Plaintiff countered that the issue of seaman status had not been decided and should not be through motion practice.
The Court focused its analysis on subject matter jurisdiction by looking to the facts alleged by Plaintiff. First, the Court examined whether Plaintiff qualified as a Jones Act seaman. The existence of a "vessel" is central to the test for seaman status. The Court determined that the marsh buggy did not qualify as a "vessel" so there was no federal question jurisdiction under the Jones Act. The Court next considered admiralty jurisdiction over maritime torts. In doing so, the Court held that the swampland/marshland did not constitute navigable waters. A maritime tort was not present because the injury did not occur on navigable waters or on a vessel operated on navigable waters. Finally, the Court determined Plaintiff did not sufficiently allege diversity jurisdiction. The Court dismissed Plaintiff's claims against SER without prejudice.
C. Why Is This Important?
- Parties electing to file suit in federal court should be mindful that subject matter jurisdiction is a threshold issue.
- Riding to work on a support vessel does not automatically qualify a worker as a seaman for purposes of the Jones Act.
- Seaman status could hinge on the status of a vessel, an employee's relationship to a vessel, and/or whether there is a vessel in navigation.