McDermott International Inc. v. Wilander

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United States Supreme Court

498 U.S. 337

McDermott International Inc.  v.  Wilander

No. 89-1474  Argued: Dec. 3, 1990. --- Decided: Feb 19, 1991


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 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. 810-818.

(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. 810-811.

(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. 811-813.

(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, 66 S.Ct. 869, 872, 90 L.Ed. 1045. Although the LHWCA exception thus refines the Jones Act term "seaman," restricting 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, 60 S.Ct. 544, 549, 84 L.Ed. 732, 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, 64 S.Ct. 747, 88 L.Ed. 931, 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, 78 S.Ct. 734, 2 L.Ed.2d 754. 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 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. 355-357.

(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. 817-818.

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

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

James B. Doyle, Lake Charles, La., for petitioner.

Jennifer J. Bercier, Cameron, La., for respondent.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).