Articles by Trevor Cutaiar

Failure to Conduct JSA for Routine Task is Not a Breach of Duty

On August 5, 2015, the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Glaze v. Higman Barge Lines Inc.  The court was asked to review the grant of summary judgment in favor of Higman on the Plaintiff’s Jones Act, unseaworthiness, and maintenance and cure claims.  The Plaintiff, who worked for Higman as a relief captain for approximately four years, alleged injury as a result of maintenance he performed on one of Higman’s vessels.  He claimed that he was instructed to perform a task in the absence of a job safety analysis and that these unsafe work methods rendered the vessel unseaworthy.  The district court granted summary judgment on all Plaintiffs’ claims and he appealed.


On appeal, The Fifth Circuit first analyzed the Plaintiff’s Jones Act claim and determined that is was without merit.  The Court ruled that the Captain’s alleged failure to conduct a job safety analysis did not establish a violation of the standard of care.  Further, although a company safety manual can inform what constitutes ordinary prudence, it does not itself create a legal duty.  The task that the Plaintiff was performing—grinding and stripping rust with a needle gun—was a routine task and the Fifth Circuit had previously held that failure to perform a job safety analysis on a routine task is not breach of duty.  The Plaintiff was an experienced seamen of forty years and admittedly knew how to use a needle gun and failed to controvert testimony that he himself trained at least one other crew member on how to use a needle gun to chip rust.


The Fifth Circuit also affirmed the grant of summary judgment as to Plaintiff’s unseaworthiness claim.  The basis of Plaintiff’s claim for unseaworthiness was the failure of the Captain to perform a job safety analysis, that the ship did not have safe housekeeping measures, and that the plaintiff was required to perform this task only one month before the vessel entered dry dock for maintenance.  The Fifth Circuit held that a Captain’s failure to conduct a job safety analysis, even if negligent, did not give rise to an unseaworthiness claim.  The Court further found that there was no support for the Plaintiff’s claim of unsafe work methods.  Plaintiff presented no evidence that the needle gun was working improperly or that its use or the vessel was unsafe.  Also, the fact that the vessel was set to undergo routine maintenance in dry dock failed to demonstrate that the vessel or any appurtenance thereto was unfit for its intended purpose or that the crew was inadequate, understaffed, or ill trained.


Addressing the Plaintiff’s maintenance and cure claim, the Court found that there was no evidence that the Plaintiff was injured while working on the vessel except for his lawsuit.  Further the Plaintiff did not report an injury to his employer until the suit was filed and he previously told his physicians from who he had sought treatment for his pain that he had not been injured.  The vessel logs did not reflect that any chipping work was done on the day the Plaintiff claimed that he was injured.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer, Higman.

Glaze v. Higman Barge Lines, Inc.

Historical Background Anchors Judge Clement’s McBride Concurrence

On September 25, 2014, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, rendered its decision in the high-profile case McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C.,12-30714, 2014 WL 4783683 (5th Cir. Sept. 25, 2014)McBride garnered national attention after the Fifth Circuit panel reversed the district court and held that punitive damages were available to seamen as a remedy for the general maritime law claim of unseaworthiness.  731 F.3d 505.  On rehearing, a majority of the Fifth Circuit judges determined that punitive damages were not available.  The majority opinion was about fifteen pages long and was followed by nearly sixty pages of concurring and dissenting opinions.

The first concurrence, penned by Circuit Judge Edith Brown Clement and joined by Circuit Judges Jolly, Smith, and Owen, took a closer look at the historical background that, in Judge Clement’s opinion, mandated the result reached by the majority.  Judge Clement dissected what she viewed as the three main points that McBride relied on and determined that, “[w]hen examined closely, none of these arguments establish McBride’s ultimate contention.”  Id. at *7.

Judge Clement first analyzed and concluded that United States Supreme Court jurisprudence does not require punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases.  The Judge noted that Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471 (2008), only addressed the narrow issue of whether punitive damages were preempted by the Clean Water Act and that this narrowness accounted for the Court’s need in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), to even address the issue of punitive damages in maintenance and cure cases.  According to Judge Clement, this left McBride with “only the thin strand of Townsend.”  McBride at *7.  However, Townsend, a maintenance and cure case, was of little help in light of the “significant differences” between actions for maintenance and cure and unseaworthiness.  Judge Clement cleverly cited to the academic writings of McBride’s own counsel to underscore the well-recognized distinction between the two causes of action. The Judge concluded that “[t]he difference between maintenance and cure and unseaworthiness actions make maintenance and cure cases a poor guide for determining unseaworthiness remedies.”  McBride at *8.

Judge Clement went on to examine the Fifth Circuit’s pre-Miles case law approving punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases, starting with In re Merry Shipping, Inc., 650 F.2d 622 (5th Cir. Unit B 1981).  She concluded that, notwithstanding Merry Shipping and a handful of other cases, there is an absence of actual authority establishing that pre-Jones Act plaintiffs claiming unseaworthiness were entitled to punitive damages.  The Judge characterized the support for such entitlement to punitive damages the result of a “collective judicial ‘oh, hell, why not’ principle” equating the availability of punitive damages in other types of actions to the availability of punitive damages for unseaworthiness.  McBride at *9.

Finally, Judge Clement waded through pre-Jones Act unseaworthiness cases cited by McBride in support of the availability of punitive damages and found only one unseaworthiness case that arguably awarded punitive damages.  The Judge concluded that, even assuming that this case did award punitive damages, one “dust-covered” case should not provide the basis for the general availability of punitive damages in unseaworthiness cases.  This was particularly true when considering the Supreme Court decisions in The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158 (1903) and Pacific Steamship Co. v. Peterson, 278 U.S. 130 (1928) that recognized the remedy for unseaworthiness was an indemnity by way of compensatory damages.

Judge Clement concluded her concurrence by explaining the need for caution “before signing off on an aggressive expansion of punitive damages in the unseaworthiness context.”  McBride at *12.  This is a product of the varying availability of insurance for punitive damages and the direct and indirect impacts such an expansion would have on commercial shipping.  “In light of the potentially sizable impact, this court should not venture too far and too fast in these largely uncharted waters without a clear signal from Congress.”  McBride at *12.

McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., 12-30714 (5th Cir. Sept. 25, 2014) (en banc).

Eleventh Circuit Affirms Lifting of Limitation Injunction for Single Claimant

In October 2011, Lisa Lynch was allegedly injured on a 26-foot luxury vessel owned and maintained by Offshore of the Palm Beaches, Inc. (“Offshore”).  Lynch’s attorney sent a letter of representation to Offshore and asked for its liability insurance information.  Offshore subsequently sought exoneration or limitation of liability pursuant to the Limitation Act.  All other causes of action against Offshore were enjoined by the district court.

Lynch answered the limitation complaint and asserted a claim for personal injury.  She later moved to dismiss, stay or lift the injunction under the single claimant exception so she could pursue her claim in state court.  Lynch stipulated that Offshore had the right to litigate its entitlement to limitation in the limitation proceeding, that the federal court would determine the limitation fund, that she would not seek determination of theses issues in state court and that she would not seek to enforce a judgment in excess of the limitation fund until these determinations were made.  When it was apparent that Lynch was the lone claimant, the district court lifted the injunction.  Offshore appealed.

Finding that it had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291(a)(1) to review the district court’s order modifying or dissolving an injunction, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit considered whether the district court abused its discretion in lifting the injunction.  The court went through the well-established limitation procedures and noted that the exclusivity of admiralty jurisdiction in this arena is at odds with the “saving to suitors” clause in 28 U.S.C. § 1333.  The United States Supreme Court has eased this tension in some cases by crafting the single claimant exception.  This exception recognizes that in single-claim scenarios, the specialized admiralty procedure is not necessary.  A district court has discretion to stay the limitation case and allow the claim to proceed in another forum subject to stipulations that protect the vessel owner from judgments in excess of the limitation fund.

Offshore argued on appeal that it was the “suitor” under § 1333 and when it filed its limitation action, its choice of forum was secured.  The court quickly rejected this argument, explaining that Lynch, the limitation claimant, was the suitor whose remedies were saved in § 1333, not the vessel owner.  The court further reasoned that this first-to-file rule advocated by Offshore would expand the Limitation Act from a protection of the vessel owner’s right to limit its liability to a choice of forum to defend claims.  The court also rejected Offshore’s argument that Lynch submitted to federal jurisdiction by filing a claim in the limitation.  Lynch made no Rule 9(h) election and premised her claims on Florida common law.  Accordingly, she was not precluded from having her claim heard in an alternate forum.

Offshore attempted to raise other arguments for the first time on appeal but these arguments were deemed waived by the court as they were not raised at the district court level.  After disposing of the issues properly on appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s order lifting the limitation injunction.

Offshore of the Palm Beaches, Inc. v. Lynch, — F.3d —-, 2014 WL 350826 (11th Cir. Feb. 3, 2014).

Southern District of Texas Finds Spar Platform Was Not A Vessel

A federal judge in the Southern District of Texas recently ruled that the oil and gas spar platform on which plaintiff Jerry Riley was injured was not a vessel.  Riley alleged injury to his spine while testing one of the platform’s life vessels.  He brought claims against his employer and the owner of the spar under the Jones Act and general maritime law.  The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that Riley’s Jones Act claims were barred because the platform was not vessel.  The court analyzed the characteristics of the platform, noting that it was assembled onsite, had no steering mechanism, no system of self-propulsion, and no raked bow.  It was intended to be used at its location for 25 years and was moored to the seabed by eleven mooring lines.  The platform was connected to two pipelines that transport natural gas and oil.  It was capable of limited movement within an approximately 200-foot radius but had not moved in four years.

The court held that the platform was a permanent structure attached to the seabed and was not practically capable of transportation.  It was, therefore, not a vessel and Riley was not a seaman under the Jones Act.  Riley’s general maritime law claims of unseaworthiness and negligence against the platform owner were also foreclosed because the platform was not a vessel and construction work on fixed offshore platforms does not bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.  Finally, Riley’s claims against his employer were also barred as the LWHCA provided his exclusive remedy.

Riley v. Alexander/Ryan Marine Servs. Co., 3:12-CV-00158, 2013 WL 5774872 (S.D. Tex. Oct. 24, 2013).