A Texas court of appeals recently held that a drill ship undergoing a renovation for nearly two years in dry dock might still be a “vessel in navigation.” Gold v. Helix Energy Solutions Group, Inc., No. 14-15-00123-CV, (Tex. App. Dec. 15, 2015). The plaintiff, who had been hired to work as a seaman aboard the Helix, was working on the ship in dry dock when he began to experience neck pain and was diagnosed with a bulging disk. He sued the ship owner under the Jones Act for his injuries. The owner successfully moved for summary judgment on the basis that the worker was not a Jones Act seaman because the Helix, which was under conversion in the Jurong Shipyard in Singapore for a total of 20 months, was not a vessel in navigation. The Texas court of appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment, holding that fact issues existed as to vessel status despite the lengthy withdrawal from navigation.
The Supreme Court has held that a vessel does not cease to be a vessel simply because she is berthed for minor repairs. See, e.g., Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 374, 115 S. Ct. 2172, 2192, 132 L. Ed. 2d 314 (1995). However, there is a point the repairs become so significant, or the time out of the water so vast, that the vessel can no longer be considered “in navigation” for Jones Act purposes. For example, the Ninth Circuit held that a ship undergoing reconstruction over 17 months (three months less than the Helix) was not a vessel in navigation. McKinley v. All Alaskan Seafoods, Inc., 980 F.2d 567, 568 (9th Cir. 1992). The Fifth Circuit held that an extensive overhaul lasting only 77 days was enough to render a ship no longer in navigation. Hodges v. S. S. Tillie Lykes, 512 F.2d 1279, 1280 (5th Cir. 1975). And yet the Helix, laid up for repairs far longer than the ships in either of those cases and with no means of self propulsion, might nevertheless be “in navigation.”
Although there is no settled expiration date for “in navigation” status for vessels under repairs, the weight of authority in the Fifth Circuit and admiralty courts elsewhere suggests that a ship undergoing a major conversion over the course of nearly two years is definitely not a vessel in navigation for Jones Act purposes. Thus, the Texas court of appeals’ decision in the Helix case is a bit of an outlier. Still, the decision is worth noting as a demonstration of how far some courts are willing to go to find Jones Act seaman status.