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.
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.
a marine engineer, was seriously injured while working on the Super
Scoop during the harbor dredging project. Stewarts 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.
At trial, Dutra
conceded that Stewart was a member of the Super Scoops 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 Stewarts
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 Stewarts
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 Dutras 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 LHWCAs definition of vessel is more inclusive than the Jones Acts definition. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to clarify the standard for determining when a watercraft is a vessel under the LHWCA.
is a Vessel?
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
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
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 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 Stewarts accident occurred did not destroy its status as a vessel.
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