Sea Grant Law Center

Supreme Court Declares Super Scoop a “Vessel”

Stewart v. Dutra Constr. Co., 125 S. Ct. 1118 (2005).

Elizabeth Mills, 2L, University of Mississippi School of Law

On February 22, 2005, the United States Supreme Court reversed the First Circuit Court of Appeals holding that the Super Scoop, a dredge used during the Boston Big Dig, qualified as a “vessel” for purposes of federal law.

As a part of Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project, also known as the “Big Dig,” the Super Scoop dug the 50 foot deep, 100 foot wide, three-quarter mile long trench underneath the Boston Harbor for the Ted Williams Tunnel. At the time, Dutra Construction Company owned the Super Scoop, the world’s largest dredge, which consists of a huge floating platform with a clamshell bucket hanging below the water. The bucket takes sediment off of the ocean floor and deposits it on scows floating beside it.

The Super Scoop is similar to traditional seagoing vessels because it has a captain and crew, navigational lights, ballast tanks, and a crew dining area. However, it differs from traditional seagoing vessels because it has limited self-propulsion. The Super Scoop uses its anchors and cables to move short distances, but it uses a tugboat to move long distances.

Willard Stewart, a marine engineer, was seriously injured while working on the Super Scoop during the harbor dredging project. Stewart’s accident occurred when the Super Scoop was idle due to engine problems with Scow No. 4, one of the vessels receiving the dredged materials. Stewart was feeding wire beside a hatch on Scow No. 4 when the Super Scoop moved the scow causing it to crash into the Super Scoop. The collision sent Stewart careening head-first through the hatch and onto the lower deck.
Stewart sued Dutra for compensation under the Jones Act, claiming that he was a seaman, and that his injuries were a result of Dutra’s negligence. Stewart filed an alternative claim under the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA), claiming he was a covered employee who could sue the owner of the vessel for negligence. Prior to the Jones Act, seamen were barred from negligence claims against shipowners because such injuries were viewed as an assumed risk of employment. In 1920, Congress enacted the Jones Act to provide sea-based maritime workers a remedy for tortious injuries. In 1927, Congress extended these worker’s compensation benefits to land-based maritime employees through the LHWCA. It is important to note that a worker cannot fall under both statutes. The LHWCA specifically exempts from coverage “a master or member of a crew of any vessel.”1

At trial, Dutra conceded that Stewart was a member of the Super Scoop’s crew, but argued that the Super Scoop was not a vessel for purposes of the Jones Act. The district court ruled that the dredge did not fall within the meaning of a “vessel” under the Jones Act because its primary purpose was dredging, not transportation. On interlocutory appeal, the First Circuit affirmed this finding and also concluded that Stewart’s seaman status “depended on the movement of the Super Scoop (which was stationary) rather than the scow.”2 The First Circuit remanded the case to the district court to decide Stewart’s alternate LHWCA claim.

As if things were not already confusing enough, on remand Dutra stipulated that the Super Scoop was a vessel under the LHWCA. Despite its stipulation, the district court granted Dutra summary judgment because “Dutra’s alleged negligence was committed in its capacity as an employer rather than as owner of the vessel” as required by the LHWCA.3 The First Circuit agreed with the district court, but noted that the LHWCA’s definition of vessel is more inclusive than the Jones Act’s definition. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to clarify the standard for determining when a watercraft is a “vessel” under the LHWCA.

What is a “Vessel”?
The LHWCA does not define “vessel.” Congress, however, provides a default definition for statutes passed after February 25, 1871, in 1 U.S.C. § 3, which states “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.” The question for the court, therefore, was whether the Super Scoop was a vessel under § 3. If a watercraft is a vessel under § 3, it is a vessel under the LHWCA.

A dredge is very different from traditional seagoing vessels. Dredges do not have their own means of propulsion and are not designed to carry passengers or cargo. These differences, however, do not prevent dredges from qualifying as vessels under U.S. law. Courts have a long history, even prior to passage of the Jones Act and the LHWCA, of classifying dredges, barges, and floating platforms as vessels because they are capable of maritime transportation. The Supreme Court “has often said that dredges and comparable watercraft qualify as vessels under the Jones Act and the LHWCA.”4

Dutra argued, however, that the Supreme Court has implicitly limited the § 3 definition through several rulings that denied vessel status when the watercraft was “not practically capable of being used to transport people, freight, or cargo from place to place.”5 The Court stated that Dutra was misinterpreting this line of cases and clarified that there is a distinction between watercraft that are permanently attached to the shore or on the ocean floor for extended periods of time and those that are temporarily immobile. The Court stated that the former are not ‘capable of being used’ for maritime transport, but the latter are. If the watercraft is not capable of being meaningfully used for maritime transport, then it cannot be considered a vessel under § 3.

The Court drew the parties’ attention to several instances where it denied vessel status for this very reason. These included a wharfboat attached to the mainland; a drydock which was moored and considered a fixed structure because it had not been moved for twenty years; a floating casino which was moored to the shore in a permanent fashion; and a floating processing plant with a large hole in her hull. The Supreme Court did not consider these watercraft vessels under § 3 because “[s]imply put, a watercraft is not ‘capable of being used’ for maritime transport in any meaningful sense if it has been permanently moored or otherwise rendered practically incapable of transportation or movement.”6

The Super Scoop was obviously capable of maritime transport. “Indeed, it could not have dug the Ted Williams Tunnel had it been unable to traverse the Boston Harbor, carrying workers like Stewart.”7 It is therefore a vessel for purposes of §3, the Jones Act, and the LHWCA.

The Supreme Court went on to clarify that a watercraft need not be used primarily for transportation to qualify as a vessel. The ability to be used for transportation is sufficient. The Court also stated that a watercraft does not need to be in motion to qualify. The fact that the Super Scoop was idle when Stewart’s accident occurred did not destroy its status as a vessel.

The Supreme Court held that “[u]nder § 3, a ‘vessel’ is any watercraft practically capable of maritime transportation, regardless of its primary purpose or state of transit at a particular moment.”8 The Super Scoop, therefore, is a vessel and its workers are eligible for seaman status under the Jones Act if they are masters or members of its crew. If they do not qualify as seamen, they may be entitled to compensation as land-based workers under the LHWCA. The Court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

1. 33 U.S.C. § 902(3)(G).
2. Stewart v. Dutra Constr. Co., 125 S. Ct. 1118, 1122 (2005).
3. Id. at 1122-23.
4. Id. at 1123.
5. Id. at 1126.
6. Id. at 1127.
7. Id. at 1128.
8. Id. at 1129.


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