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On March 12, 2024, in Santee v. Oceaneering International, Inc. et al., the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a published opinion reaffirming the law on several issues that consistently arise in the maritime and oil and gas industries, and particularly associated with operations on the Outer Continental Shelf. Affirming three separate summary judgments in favor of three different defendants, Chevron U.S.A. Inc. (“Chevron”), represented by Liskow lawyers Michael Golemi and Alma Shields, Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling, Inc. (“Transocean”), and Oceaneering International Inc. (“Oceaneering”), the Court addressed the procedural mechanics of removal and remand in cases involving allegations of Jones Act personal injury and opined on operations that fall under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”), Jones Act seaman status, the exclusive remedy provisions of the Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act (“LHWCA”), claims of unseaworthiness, the handover duties of a vessel under the LHWCA, and operational control as it relates to independent contractors.

For over two decades, Shanon Roy Santee worked in the offshore oil and gas industry as a technician for remote-operated vehicles (“ROV”) and primarily as an employee of Oceaneering. After 2016, Santee mainly worked aboard the M/V DEEPWATER CONQUEROR, a drillship serviced by Transocean.  Chevron contracted with Oceaneering and Transocean for underwater exploration and drilling services.  Santee was injured while working on board the DEEPWATER CONQUEROR during Chevron’s contract with the co-defendants. Santee’s alleged injury occurred in January 2021 while he was performing routine maintenance on the ROV equipment, which Oceaneering owned and operated.  

In September 2021, Santee filed suit against Defendants in Texas state court under the Jones Act, general maritime law, and the Saving to Suitors Clause claiming negligence and unseaworthiness.  Chevron asserted that Santee was not a Jones Act seaman and removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas asserting federal question jurisdiction, general admiralty jurisdiction, and original jurisdiction under OCSLA.   

The Fifth Circuit first addressed removal and the other jurisdictional issues. The Court affirmed the district court’s finding that Santee was not a Jones Act seaman and that he had “no reasonable possibility of establishing a Jones Act claim.” To be determined a Jones Act seaman, a party 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 Sanchez factors: (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. The Fifth Circuit was “not persuaded by any of [Santee’s] arguments” and 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, and he was a transitory worker with a discrete task aboard the vessel and was free to take other jobs between vessel hitches. Santee attempted to persuade the Court that he was an entrenched crewmember and the duration of his service on a vessel proves allegiance to that vessel. The Court was not convinced by Santee’s lack of authoritative law on the point and declined to create new law as to the first Sanchez factor. The Court reiterated that it does not consider duration of service on one vessel as evidence of allegiance, but it is a consideration in establishing the duration prong of the seaman test.

Next, the Court addressed Defendants’ assertion that federal question jurisdiction was proper based on OCSLA. Put simply, OCSLA extends federal jurisdiction over cases arising out of any operation involving the development of minerals on the outer continental shelf. Typically, jack-up rigs and similar vessels that drill into the seabed satisfy the requirements. 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. The Court, again, was unpersuaded since it was undisputed that the vessel was “performing drilling and completion operations . . . in connection with the development of hydrocarbons.”  Moreover, Defendants’ affidavits stated that the DEEPWATER CONQUEROR was, in fact, attached to the Outer Continental Shelf.

Then, the Court turned its attention to Defendants’ motions for summary judgment. Oceaneering’s motion for summary judgment was based on the determination that Santee was not a Jones Act seaman and therefore, Santee fell under the LHWCA. Due to the LHWCA’s exclusive remedy provision, Oceaneering, as Santee’s employer, was immune from tort liability. Santee argued that numerous fact issues existed as to whether he was a Jones Act seaman. The Court held that Santee’s “argument fail[ed]” since it was determined that Santee was not a Jones Act seaman and fraudulently pleaded his Jones Act claims. 

Transocean’s motion for summary judgment was also based on the LHWCA. Under the LHWCA, a vessel owner owes 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.

Additionally, the LHWCA prohibits claims based on the warranty of seaworthiness. Santee asserted that he could maintain his claim of unseaworthiness because he was injured while doing the work of a seaman. The Fifth Circuit, however, rejected Santee’s “factual leaps” and classified his arguments as “a misreading of circuit precedent.”   

Lastly, the Court addressed Chevron’s motion for summary judgment, which Liskow successfully secured in 2023.  Santee’s claim of “implied authorization of negligent actions” against Chevron fell flat since Chevron lacked operational control and did not set workplace safety rules or policies.  In fact, Oceaneering was designated in its contract with Chevron as an independent contractor with complete control and supervision over its workers, and Oceaneering owned and operated the ROV equipment.  As to Santee’s unseaworthiness claim, Chevron chartered the DEEPWATER CONQUEROR but did not furnish the crew or maintain the vessel, thus alleviating any duty to furnish a vessel reasonably fit for its intended purpose.  As such, the Court affirmed the district court’s grant of all-three Defendants’ motions for summary judgment. Liskow’s trial team consisted of Michael Golemi and Alma Shields.

This case presented the perfect opportunity for the Court to reiterate, and clarify where necessary, the elements which determine whether a maritime worker qualifies as a Jones Act seaman. Further, due to the contractual and operational complexities that commonly exist between corporate entities that charter, operate, and own vessels, this case provided the Court with the occasion to address vessel owner and operator duties as they apply to seaman and maritime workers under the LHWCA, OCSLA, and the Jones Act. 

If you have questions about the LHWCA, OCSLA, or the Jones Act, contact Michael Golemi, David Reisman, and Elizabeth Strunk. To read more about Liskow’s Maritime team, click here.

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