Harbor Tug & Barge Company v. Papai

PETITIONER:Harbor Tug & Barge Company
LOCATION:Camp Newfound Owatonna

DOCKET NO.: 95-1621
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 520 US 548 (1997)
ARGUED: Jan 13, 1997
DECIDED: May 12, 1997

David C. Frederick – Department of Justice, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the respondents
Eric Danoff – Argued the cause for the petitioner
Thomas J. Boyle – Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

John Papai was injured while painting the housing structure of the tug Pt. Barrow. The Pt. Barrow is operated by Harbor Tug & Barge Co., which hired Papai to do the work, which involved no sailing with the vessel. Papai had been employed by Harbor Tug on twelve previous occasions in the two months before his injury, receiving those jobs through the Inland Boatman’s Union hiring hall, which had provided Papai with short term jobs with various vessels for about two years. Most of Papai’s jobs were deckhand work, which Papai said involved manning the lines on and off board vessels while they dock or undock. Papai sued Harbor Tug, claiming negligence under the Jones Act, which serves to protect seamen or workers who face regular exposure to the perils of the sea. The District Court granted Harbor Tug summary judgment upon finding that Papai did not enjoy seaman status under the Jones Act. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a trial Papai’s seaman status and his corresponding Jones Act claim. The court concluded that the relevant inquiry was not whether Papai had a permanent connection with the vessel, but whether his relationship with a vessel or an identifiable group of vessels was substantial in duration and nature, and found that this required consideration of his employment’s total circumstances. Moreover, the court determined that a reasonable jury could conclude that Papai satisfied this test, for if the type of work a maritime worker customarily performs would entitle him to seaman status if performed for a single employer, he should not be deprived of that status simply because the industry operates under a daily assignment, rather than a permanent employment system.


Could a reasonable jury conclude that John Papai is a Jones Act seaman in accordance with his record of employment?

Media for Harbor Tug & Barge Company v. Papai

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 13, 1997 in Harbor Tug & Barge Company v. Papai

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 12, 1997 in Harbor Tug & Barge Company v. Papai

I have the opinions of the Court to announce in two cases.

The first is Harbor Tug versus Papai.

Here, the respondent, John Papai, was injured while working on a tugboat, owned by the — owned an operator by the petitioner, the Harbor Tug Company.

He was painting the vessel at dockside.

He claimed he was a seaman under the Jones Act.

The employer insisted he was an employee under the Longshoremen and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.

The reason for a dispute like this is because the Jones Act provides a much more liberal recovery in damages for an injured person than the Longshoremen and Harbor Workers’ Act, which is more like Workmen’s Compensation with just a scheduled set of payment for scheduled injuries.

In an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, and filed with the clerk today, we hold that Papai’s showing of coverage under the Jones Act was insufficient.

The seamen’s status issue requires us to refer to our decision in an earlier case entitled “Chandris.”

In Chandris, we said that a worker can establish seamen status based on the substantiality of his connection to an identifiable group of vessels.

In this case, it was Papai’s theory that he had a substantial connection to a group of vessels since over a two and a quarter year period, he worked for several vessels through the same hiring hall, though they were owned by several different employers.

In his view, it made no difference that the three employers were not linked by any common ownership or control.

We disagree with that interpretation of the phrase “identifiable group of vessels” as used in Chandris.

Vessels have to be subject to common ownership or control to constitute an identifiable group, so that we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Ginsburg and Breyer joined.