Articles by Will Bland, IV

Fifth Circuit: Maritime Carpenter Not Covered by LHWCA

The Fifth Circuit recently issued a new decision addressing the limits of jurisdiction under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.  The claimant, a maritime carpenter, was allegedly injured at the employer’s waterside fabrication yard in Houma, La.  At the time of the incident, the claimant was assisting in the construction of a housing module that was to be incorporated into a tension leg offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.  The claimant filed a claim under the LHWCA, alleging he was covered by the Act as a shipbuilder, or in the alternative that he was covered by its extension under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.


Following a formal hearing, the Administrative Law Judge determined that the claimant was not covered by the Act and denied benefits.  The Claimant appealed to the Benefits Review Board, which affirmed the ALJ’s decision.  The Claimant appealed again to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.


The Fifth Circuit evaluated the purpose of the housing module as an eventual component part of the platform.  The Court turned to the Supreme Court’s Lozman and Dutra decisions to determine what constitutes a “vessel”.  Because the platform was not practically intended for maritime transportation, it did not qualify as a vessel.  Further, because the housing module was not a vessel, the claimant was not engaged in maritime employment as a shipbuilder at the time of the incident and therefore did not meet the “status” requirement of the LHWCA.  The Court then turned to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Pacific Operators Offshore v. Valladolid to determine whether he was covered under OCSLA.  In Valladolid, the Supreme Court held that for a claimant to be covered under OCSLA, he must establish a “substantial nexus” between the injury and extractive operations on the OCS.  The Fifth Circuit concluded that the claimant’s onshore job of building a dining quarters for an offshore platform was too attenuated from OCS operations and therefore he was not covered by the OCSLA.  The Court affirmed the denial of benefits.


Baker v. Gulf Island Marine Fabricators, LLC

Drilling Rig Exclusion Precluded Insured’s Reimbursement Claim Against Excess Insurer

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed an insurance coverage question involving an excess insurer and an offshore injury.  The Plaintiff was injured while working on a drillship in the Gulf of Mexico.  Plaintiff filed a lawsuit in 2011 pursuant to the Jones Act and general maritime law in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.  Later that year, his employer was named as a third party defendant.  The employer filed cross claims against its primary insurer in 2012 and against its excess insurer 2014.  The Jones Act employer eventually settled with the Plaintiff, but maintained its claims for reimbursement against its two insurers.


The excess insurer moved for summary judgment and argued the excess insurance policy excluded coverage.  Specifically, the policy contained an exclusion for “any liability or expense arising out of the ownership, use or operation of drilling rigs, drilling barges, drilling tenders, platforms, flow lines, gathering stations and/or pipelines, but this exclusion shall not apply to craft serving the foregoing such as crew, supply, or utility boats, tenders, barges or tugs.”  The District Court agreed the injury occurring on a drillship fell within this exclusion and dismissed the employer’s claim for reimbursement against the excess insurer.  The employer appealed to the Fifth Circuit.


On appeal, the employer argued in part that the excess insurer waived coverage defenses by not raising them until 2014 and not issuing a reservation of right letter.  Under Louisiana law, waiver occurs when there is 1) an existing right, 2) knowledge of its existence, and 3) an actual intention to relinquish it or conduct so inconsistent with the intent to enforce the right as to induce a reasonable belief that it has been relinquished.  The Court found the excess insurer satisfied the first two elements by possessing the coverage defense and having knowledge of the accident as early as 2011.  The employer argued that the excess insurer’s conduct of not raising the coverage defense for three years satisfied the third element and effectively waived the insurer’s right to assert a coverage defense.  The Fifth Circuit determined that because the excess insurer was not made a party to the case until three years after the lawsuit being filed, there was no evidence that the excess insurer had assumed defense of the employer with the intention or conduct of eventually denying coverage.  In other words, the insurer’s conduct prior to being brought into the lawsuit did not create a belief that it intended to waive the coverage defense, which was asserted in its initial filings.  Thus, the excess insurer had not waived its right to lodge a coverage defense and the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the employer’s claim against its excess insurer.


Richard v. Dolphin Drilling

Tides Are Turning: The Arrival of Subchapter M

*This article was prepared by our summer law clerk, Ridge Miguez.


On June 20, 2016 the U.S. Coast Guard posted a preview of the final version of the long-awaited Subchapter M regulation, which will extend inspection requirements to the majority of tugs and towboats for the first time. In 2004, Congress reclassified towing vessels as vessels subject to inspection, and consistent with 46 U.S.C. 3305, this rule sets out the scope and standards of inspection. Now with the implementation of Subchapter M the U.S. Coast Guard has created a comprehensive safety system that includes company compliance, vessel compliance, vessel standards, and oversight in a new Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) subchapter dedicated to towing vessels. This rule, which generally applies to all U.S. flag towing vessels 26 feet or greater, and those less than 26 feet moving a barge carrying oil or hazardous material in bulk, lays out both inspection mechanisms as well as new equipment, construction, and operational requirements for towing vessels.


To provide flexibility, vessel operators will have the choice of two inspection regimes. Under the Towing Safety Management System (TSMS) option, routine inspections of towing vessels will primarily be performed by third-party organizations (TPOs), including certain classification societies, and this rule creates a framework for oversight and audits of such TPOs by the Coast Guard. The TSMS will provide operators with the flexibility to tailor their safety management system to their own needs, while still ensuring an overall level of safety acceptable to the Coast Guard. Alternatively, under the Coast Guard inspection option, routine inspections would be conducted by the Coast Guard, providing an option for those operators who choose not to develop and implement their own TSMS.


Subchapter M also creates many new requirements for design, construction, equipment, and operation of towing vessels. Those requirements are typically based on industry consensus standards or existing Coast Guard requirements for similar vessels.


The most important change to the final revision of Subchapter M has been the changes made to the Coast Guard’s proposal in the NPRM. They have clarified the system for Coast Guard oversight and inspection of towing vessels that complements the TPO system. To address concerns about the cost impact of the rule, they have added “grandfathering” provisions to several requirements, so the requirements will not apply to existing vessels or vessels whose construction began before the effective date of the rule. Also, they have reorganized several parts for greater clarity or to better align with the existing text of other parts of the CFR. As noted in the NPRM (7 FR 49985), the Coast Guard still plans to promulgate a separate rulemaking for an annual inspection fee for towing vessels that will reflect the specific program costs associated with the TSMS and Coast Guard inspection options. As of now the Coast Guard is establishing the existing fee of $1,030 in 46 CFR 2.10-101 for any inspected vessel not listed in Table 2.10-101, as the annual inspection fee for towing vessels subject to Subchapter M. Furthermore, this fee will not be charged for a vessel being inspected for the initial issuance of a certificate of inspection (COI), however the fee will be charged annually starting the following year.


The Coast Guard released a statement that Subchapter M will affect approximately 5,509 U.S. flag towing vessels engaged in pushing, pulling, or hauling alongside, and the 1,096 companies that own or operate them. Towing vessels exempt from this rule include towing vessels inspected under Subchapter I, work boats, and recreational vessel towing vessels.


The estimate for total industry and net government costs is $41.5 million annualized at a 7 percent discount rate over a 10 –year period of analysis. The estimate for monetized benefits is $46.4 million annualized at a 7 percent discount rate, based on the mitigation of risks from towing vessel accidents in terms of lives lost, injuries, oil spilled, and property damage. Thus, a net benefit of $4.9 million is estimated from implementing Subchapter M.


The new rule became effective July 20, 2016. However, certain existing towing vessels subject to this rule will have an additional 2 years before having to comply with most of its requirements. It will be interesting to see how small operators are affected by the changes Subchapter M brings their way. Only time will tell, but it seems the rule change is in the greater interest of the industry as a whole.


Plaintiff’s Construction Defect Claims Against Offshore Spar Manufacturer Dismissed

In June 2011, an offshore worker was injured on a spar (a floating platform shaped like a giant buoy) on the outer continental shelf when he was struck in the face with the flange of a valve.  He filed a personal injury lawsuit against the manufacturer of the spar, McDermott, Inc., alleging his injury was caused by defective design and construction of the spar.


McDermott filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s right of action was perempted under Louisiana law.  McDermott asserted that because plaintiff was covered by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), the law of the adjacent state (Louisiana) applied as a surrogate to federal law.  McDermott then pointed to a Louisiana statute, La. R.S. 9:2772, which provides a five year peremptive period in which to bring an action arising out of deficiencies in the design or construction of immovable property.  Because McDermott delivered the finished spar to its customer (plaintiff’s employer) in 2004, plaintiff’s design defect claim filed in 2013, was time barred.  The District Court agreed with McDermott and dismissed plaintiff’s claims.  Plaintiff appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.


On appeal, plaintiff argued that La. R.S. 9:2772 did not apply to his claim because the spar was not an immovable, which was a matter of first impression for the Court.  The Fifth Circuit had previously determined that a spar is not a vessel for purposes of the Jones Act, but no court had ever addressed whether a spar is immovable property under Louisiana law.  The Court noted that fixed platforms are considered immovable property.  The Court further noted that the spar in question was permanently moored to the ocean floor, was intended to remain in its location for its twenty year life, and it would take months of planning to move the spar.  The Fifth Circuit concluded that enough similarities exist between a spar and fixed platform that a spar is immovable property under Louisiana law.  Thus, plaintiff’s design defect claims were dismissed as time barred by state law.


Hefren v. McDermott, Inc.