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In Santee v. Oceaneering International, Inc., the Fifth Circuit determined that a technician for Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) on a drill ship, was not a seaman covered by the Jones Act but that his exclusive remedy for an alleged injury was the Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation.

The ruling restates the Fifth Circuit’s more limited definition of who qualifies as a seaman following its landmark 2021 ruling in Sanchez v. Smart Fabricators of Tex., LLC. This is an important decision for maritime employers in helping determine which employees are covered under the Jones Act and which under other no fault but more limited compensation regimes.

Santee at Sea

For more than 20 years, Shanon Roy Santee worked as an ROV technician primarily for Oceaneering. From 2016, Santee mainly worked aboard the Transocean drillship, the M/V DEEPWATER CONQUEROR. That drillship was chartered to Chevron, which also had a contract with Santee’s employer Oceaneering for ROV services. 

Santee claimed he was injured while working on board the DEEPWATER CONQUEROR while performing routine maintenance on the ROV launch and recovery system, which Oceaneering owned and operated. 

State or Federal Court?

Santee filed suit in state court in Texas alleging claims under the Jones Act and the general maritime law. Defendants removed the case under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.  Santee sought remand, arguing that his claims were not removable because he was a Jones Act seaman. Not so concluded the district court, holding that the Jones Act claim had been fraudulently pled.

Seaman or Not?

Defendants moved for summary judgment at the close of discovery on the basis that Santee was not a Jones Act seaman.

To qualify as a Jones Act seaman, the plaintiff must satisfy a two-prong test: “(1) a plaintiff’s duties must contribute to the function or mission of the vessel; and (2) the plaintiff must have a connection to the vessel or fleet of vessels that is substantial in duration and in nature.”

The second prong is analyzed using the three-additional factors recently established in Sanchez: (1) the plaintiff’s allegiance to its land-based employer or the vessel; (2) the plaintiff’s work is sea-based; and (3) the plaintiff’s assignment is limited to performance of a discrete task.

In this case, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the district court that two of the three Sanchez factors weighed against Jones Act status. Specifically, Santee maintained allegiance to his land-based employer (factor 1), and he was a transitory worker with a discrete task aboard the vessel and was free to take other jobs between vessel hitches (factor 3).

The Fifth Circuit concluded that there was no supporting authority for Santee’s claim that he was an entrenched crewmember and the duration of his service on a vessel established allegiance to that vessel.

OCSLA or Not?

Having concluded that Santee was not a seaman, the Fifth Circuit then considered whether federal question jurisdiction was proper based on OCSLA, which extends federal jurisdiction over cases arising out of any operation involving the development of minerals on the outer continental shelf. Santee argued that there was no federal jurisdiction under OCSLA because Santee’s petition did not allege that the DEEPWATER CONQUEROR was attached to the seabed (a claim contradicted by affidavits from all defendants).

The Fifth Circuit did not agree, noting that it was undisputed that the vessel was “performing drilling and completion operations … in connection with the development of hydrocarbons.”  That was sufficient for OCSLA jurisdiction.

Negligence or Not?

Lastly, the Fifth Circuit considered the defendants’ respective motions for summary judgment.

  • Having concluded that Santee was not a seaman but covered under the LHWCA, that was his exclusive remedy against his employer, Oceaneering. 
  • Transocean – the vessel owner – also sought dismissal under the LHWCA, which provides that the vessel owner may owe three duties to maritime workers aboard their vessels — turnover, active control, and intervention. Transocean did not owe any of the three duties to Santee because Santee had the final authority over ROV repairs and any hazards would have been open and obvious to him, the ROV area and equipment were exclusively controlled by Oceaneering’s staff, and there was no evidence that Transocean had actual knowledge of the alleged condition requiring any intervention on its behalf.
  • Santee’s claim of “implied authorization of negligent actions” against Chevron failed because Chevron lacked operational control and did not set workplace safety rules or policies.

So, Santee was entitled to compensation under the LHWCA but nothing further.

About Our Author

Matt Guy is the practice team leader of the Adams and Reese Maritime, Insurance, and Business Immigration practices. He litigates matters stemming from marine construction, maritime, marine, construction and energy insurance and all aspects of worldwide oil and gas operations. He handles brown water and blue water maritime disputes. His representation encompasses domestic and international marine construction companies, drilling contractors, offshore service vessel owners, ship owners, shipyards and rig repair facilities, naval architects, marine engineers and designers, and construction companies as well as their insurers on coverage questions, defense of claims, and subrogation. Matt is a Partner in both New Orleans and Houston.