Offshore Floating Tension Leg Platform Not a Vessel
An offshore floating tension leg platform is not a vessel, according to the U.S. Fifth Circuit’s recent decision in Baker v. Director, OWCP, 15-60634 (5th Cir. 8/19/16).
The issue in Baker involved whether a worker injured during the construction of an offshore platform was entitled to benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. He was injured in a waterside marine fabrication yard in Houma, Louisiana, while building a housing module for Big Foot, a structure being constructed as an offshore tension leg platform. The parties stipulated that the Houma fabrication yard constituted a maritime situs under the LHWCA, meaning that the worker could recover benefits if he possessed status as a maritime worker. The Fifth Circuit explained that a worker is involved in maritime employment if he is a ship repairman, shipbuilder or ship-breaker, or if he is engaged in activities that are an integral or essential part of the loading or unloading of a vessel. Therefore, the worker’s entitlement to benefits in Baker hinged on whether Big Foot was a vessel.
The Fifth Circuit noted the following characteristics of Big Foot:
“Big Foot, like other TLPs, is a type of offshore oil platform used for deep water drilling; the parties concede that Big Foot was not built to regularly transport goods or people. Its various parts were constructed in several locations: its base, which is capable of flotation, was built in Korea; its operations modules were built in Aransas Pass, Texas; and its living quarters were built in Houma, Louisiana. All of these components were transported to Ingleside, Texas for assembly—a process that often takes several months, if not years. Although Big Foot can float, it is not capable of self-propulsion, has no steering mechanism, does not have a raked bow, and has no thrusters for positioning once on location. Once completed, Big Foot was scheduled to be towed to a location approximately two hundred miles off the coast of Louisiana and anchored to the sea floor by over sixteen miles of tendons. Anytime it is under tow, Big Foot will be tended to by a crew that is employed to control Big Foot during the voyage. Once anchored, Big Foot will serve as a work platform for the life of the oil field, which is estimated to be twenty years.”
In determining whether Big Foot was a vessel, the Fifth Circuit relied upon two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Stewart v. Dutra Constr. Co., 543 U.S. 481 (2005) and Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, 133 S. Ct. 735 (2013). The Fifth Circuit explained that the Supreme Court determined in Stewart that a watercraft is a vessel if it is used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water. Lozman restricted this definition, reminding that not every floating structure is a vessel. The Court in Lozman held that a floating home was not a vessel because “[b]ut for the fact that it floats, nothing about Lozman’s home suggests that it was designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water.” Lozman, 133 S. Ct. at 741.
Relying on these precedents, the Fifth Circuit found that Big Foot was not a vessel. The Fifth Circuit noted that “Big Foot will not be used to transport equipment and workers over water in the course of its regular use. … In fact, Big Foot is only intended to travel over water once in the next twenty years—the voyage to its operational location on the OCS.” The court noted that Big Foot had no means of self-propulsion, no steering mechanism or rudder, and lacked a raked bow.
The worker advanced another argument for benefits, relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Pacific Operators Offshore, LLP v. Valladolid, 132 S. Ct. 680 (2012). In Valladolid, the Supreme Court allowed a worker to obtain workers’ compensation benefits under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, even if the worker was not injured on the Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”). The Court held that the worker only need establish a “substantial nexus between the injury and extractive operations on the [OCS] to qualify” for benefits. While Big Foot had a “future purpose” of extracting natural resources from the OCS, the Fifth Circuit held that, in constructing a portion of Big Foot on land, the worker’s activities were “too attenuated” from that future purpose. The Fifth Circuit observed that the worker’s employment would never require him to go to the OCS, and his employer would have no role in moving Big Foot to its eventual location on the OCS.
This decision from the Fifth Circuit broke no new ground, but adds valuable precedent defining vessel status, particularly for the oil and gas industry. The Fifth Circuit also helped refine the Supreme Court’s Valladolid decision, which has of yet received little judicial interpretation.
Baker v. Director, OWCP, 15-60634 (5th Cir. 8/19/16)