Who's a seaman? Supreme Court may chart the waters

Published September 29, 2014 2:15PM (EDT)

EWELL, Md. (AP) — William Smith Dize's life revolved around water.

The boat captain worked the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, and when he wasn't operating a boat, he was working on them and around the dock.

But when Dize got sick and sued his employer in 2008, claiming a boat maintenance project led to a deadly respiratory illness, he quickly found himself navigating stormy waters.

His bosses said his work did not qualify him to be a "seaman," a designation needed to sue his employer under a federal law.

Dize died in 2012. His widow, Jennifer, is asking the Supreme Court to take her husband's case. Some experts say the case could prove important to thousands of maritime workers who spend long periods on land and shorter bursts at sea, including salmon fishermen in Alaska, workers on fire boats and salvage vessels, and even those who repair undersea telephone cables.

The justices are scheduled to discuss whether to take the case as part of a private conference Monday, but it will be days before it's known what they decided.

The Dizes grew up on bay islands. He was from Virginia's Tangier Island, she about 10 miles north, on Smith Island, where the population numbers about 275. They became friendly through dances at a local hall and married in 1967. He was 19, she was 18. Soon, they had three children.

In 1986, Dize took a job with the Association of Maryland Pilots. For the next two decades, his job was to captain a boat that took pilots out to commercial vessels, including cargo ships and tanker ships, so local pilots could guide the ships through the bay.

When he wasn't doing that, Dize cleaned the docks, ordered parts and supplies, mowed the lawn, worked on boats — whatever needed to be done.

Then, in late 2007, Dize got what he thought was a hard-to-shake cold. Go see your doctor, his wife said.

"The next call I got they were putting him in the hospital," Jennifer Dize said.

The diagnosis: a lung disease called silicosis.

"Our lives were completely turned around," she said.

As Dize was tested, his doctor started asking questions. Where could he have breathed in silica dust, silicosis' cause? He had recently sandblasted a boat at work, he said. It was suggested he get a lawyer.

In 2008, Dize sued his employer, ultimately asking for $10 million under a federal law called the Jones Act.

A 1995 Supreme Court decision said that someone who spends about 30 percent or more of his time "in the service of a vessel in navigation" is a "seaman" qualified to sue under that law. Dize didn't spend 30 percent of his time captaining a boat, but his lawyers argued that the boat maintenance work he did counts toward the requirement.

In asking the Supreme Court to take the case, Dize's lawyers say courts nationwide are split on what work counts toward the 30 percent rule, and that the high court should resolve the confusion.

Dize's former employer disagrees. Lawyers for the organization wrote in court papers that the Dizes can't sue under the Jones Act and instead have a workers' compensation claim. The difference for the Dize family could be millions of dollars less in potential benefits.

Jennifer Dize says the suit isn't only about money.

"I would like him to be recognized as a good seaman," she said. "Because he was."


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By Jessica Gresko

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