How the Supreme Court's New Definition of 'Vessel' is Affecting Seaman Status, Admiralty Jurisdiction, and Other Areas of Maritime Law
42 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2008
Date Written: July 3, 2008
Section 3 of the Rules of Construction Act provides that "the word 'vessel' includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water." This definition has been on the books since 1873. But it did not receive the Supreme Court's full blessing until 2005, when the Court held in Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co. that the 1873 statute "codified the meaning that the term 'vessel' had acquired in general maritime law" and that "section 3 continues to supply the default definition of 'vessel' throughout the U.S. Code, 'unless the context indicates otherwise." The immediate issue in Stewart was how to define 'vessel' for purposes of determining an injured worker's status as a seaman, but the Court's embrace of section 3 in Stewart is affecting many other areas of admiralty and maritime law as well. This article summarizes the Stewart decision and tries to correct a mistaken reading that is occurring with some frequency. It lays a foundation for exploring Stewart's effects on the law by explaining how the decision broadened the meaning of "vessel" in some contexts but may have narrowed it in others, and goes into detail respecting the impact on seaman status, with emphasis on the frequently litigated issue of whether casino boat workers (bartenders, croupiers, dealers, etc.) are seamen under the Jones Act. It then looks at the effects of Stewart on admiralty jurisdiction more generally in tort and contract, including possible effects on actions under section 5 of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, on the Coast Guard's authority, on shipowners' petitions for limitation of liability, and on ship mortgages. It concludes with proposals for dealing with some of the difficulties engendered by the Stewart decision.
Keywords: admiralty, maritime, jurisdiction, vessel, tort, contract, seaman, longshore, limitation, ship mortgage, Dutra
JEL Classification: J28, K11, K12, K13, K32, K41, L92
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation