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SEACOR Power Tragedy Highlights Dangers of Lift Boats

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On April 13, 2021, a 234-foot lift boat named the SEACOR Power capsized in rough weather seven miles off the coast of Louisiana. Of the nineteen crew members, six were rescued shortly after the incident. Tragically, six of the crew died and were recovered and seven are still missing.

At least three lawsuits have already been filed against SEACOR Marine and Talos Energy in connection with the April 13 incident. SEACOR Marine owns the SEACOR Power and Talos Energy hired the lift boat to perform work on an offshore oil & gas platform. Two of the lawsuits were filed in Harris County, Texas, and one was filed in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana. All three lawsuits assert Jones Act claims and claims for negligence and unseaworthiness.

Lift boats, also known as “jack-up boats,” are heavily used in offshore oil & gas operations and have a track record of capsizing, particularly in rough weather. Lift boats are unique in that they have legs that can be lowered to the ocean floor, converting the boat from a seagoing watercraft to a “land-based” work platform. They are used to transport equipment and provide other support to offshore drilling rigs and regularly serve as a bunk house for crews working offshore. A lift boat’s long legs – which can be over 300 feet in length – can make the boat unstable when the legs are raised and the boat is underway.

There have been several lawsuits involving lift boats that capsized. For example, in Graham v. Milky Way Barges, 590 F. Supp. 721 (E.D. La. 1984), a lift boat was legs down next to an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico when it capsized, killing one crewmember and injuring two others. The day of the accident, the weather had deteriorated and the Captain attempted to lift the boat further out of the water. The forward port leg malfunctioned and soon after a wave hit the hull and caused the boat to capsize. The lift boat owner was deemed negligent because it failed to adequately monitor the weather conditions and because the lift boat’s port leg malfunctioned and therefore was not seaworthy. Chevron, who hired the lift boat, was also deemed negligent for hiring a lift boat to operate in water that was deeper than its operational capacity.

One issue that can arise in lawsuits involving lift boats is whether an injured worker is a “seaman” eligible to make a claim under the Jones Act. Courts have adopted a two-part test to determine whether a crewmember is a seaman: (1) does the crewmember contribute to the lift boat’s function or mission accomplishment, and (2) does the crewmember have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and nature. Johnson v. Tetra Applied Techs., L.L.C., 2012 U.S. Dist. Lexis 110078, at *8-9 (E.D. La. 2012).

The first prong is usually easier to satisfy than the second. Courts have adopted “a general rule of thumb, [that] in order to qualify as a Jones Act seaman, an employee should demonstrate that at least thirty percent of his work is spent in service of a vessel (or an identifiable group of vessels) in navigation.” Id. This threshold could be difficult for crewmembers who work on the offshore oil platforms, and not the lift boat itself, and will turn on the specific facts of the case. For example, a rigger who spent 34% of his time performing offshore work using lift boats satisfied the test and was found to be a “seaman” for the Jones Act. Id. However, a lead hand/operator in a company’s plug and abandonment department was not a “seaman” because he spent approximately 65% of his time working on platforms. Alexander v. Express Energy Servs. Operating, L.P., 784 F.3d 1032, 1037 (5th Cir. 2015). In another case, an offshore welder who spent 92% of his time on lift boats was deemed not a seaman because the lift boats were owned by six different companies and did not constitute and “identifiable fleet.” Etheridge v. Sub Sea Int’l, 806 F. Supp. 598, 599-600 (E.D. La. 1992).

If you or a loved one were hurt or killed in an offshore or maritime accident, contact our Houston Jones Act maritime lawyers for a free, confidential consultation.

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