Articles by Will Bland, IV

Fifth Circuit Rejects Vicarious Liability Claim From Personnel Basket Injury

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion today addressing the vicarious liability of a principal contractor for its independent contractors.  The Plaintiff was employed as a crane mechanic by Gulf Crane Services and was working on an offshore platform owned and operated by Dynamic Offshore Resources, LLC.  He was injured in a personnel basket transfer from a boat to the platform.  He sued Dynamic, alleging it was vicariously liable for the negligence of its subcontractors, including the crane operator.  No Dynamic personnel were present on the platform.

 

The District Court dismissed the case on summary judgment and the Plaintiff appealed to the Fifth Circuit.  The Court noted that under Louisiana law, a principal is not liable for the activities of
an independent contractor committed in the course of performing its duties under the contract, with two exceptions: 1) the principal is liable for ultrahazardous activities contracted out to an independent contractor, and 2) the principal is liable if it has operational control over the acts of the independent contractor or authorizes unsafe practices.

 

The Court determined that a personnel basket transfer is not an ultrahazardous activity, regardless of the high wind that allegedly caused the basket to suddenly fall eight feet.  The law does not consider the specific conditions of an activity to determine whether it qualifies as ultrahazardous.  Furthermore, the Court found the Plaintiff could point to no evidence that Dynamic authorized an unsafe practice.  Instead, Plaintiff testified that he specifically requested the personnel basket transfer in high winds despite his “stop work authority”.  Dynamic in no way authorized an unsafe working condition.  Therefore the Plaintiff was unable to establish that his injury fell into either exception to the vicarious liability rule and Dynamic could not be held liable for the activities of its independent contractors.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in Dynamic’s favor.

 

Davis v. Dynamic Offshore Resources, LLC

Ninth Circuit Finds DBA Claimant Failed to Establish Employee-Employer Relationship

The Ninth Circuit recently addressed the employer-employee relationship required in a claim under the Defense Base Act.  Claimant worked as a contractor truck driver with the U.S. military in Iraq.  In 2005, he was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) and filed a claim under the DBA.  Claimant named his employer as Theodor Wille Intertrade, GmbH (TWI), a Swiss corporation that did business in Iraq as Servco Solutions, LLC (Servco).  TWI/Servco controverted the claim and denied Claimant was its employee.

 

The claim was submitted to the Administrative Law Judge on briefs.  Judge Paul Johnson reviewed multiple deposition transcripts (including two from the Claimant) and affidavits and denied the claim on the grounds that Claimant had failed to establish that there was an employer-employee relationship.  Claimant appealed to the Benefits Review Board, which affirmed Judge Johnson’s decision.  Claimant then appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

 

The Claimant testified that he was working for TWI/Servco or one of its subsidiaries and that he took instruction from a TWI/Servco employee, Eddie Nagel.  He also submitted a signed declaration from a friend who confirmed these allegations, as well as a letter of recommendation from Mr. Nagel on TWI/Servco letterhead.  Judge Jonnson discounted Claimant’s testimony based on multiple inconsistencies at his two depositions, gave no weight to the signed declaration, and credited Mr. Nagel’s explanation that he wrote the letter out of sympathy, but did not supervise the Claimant.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed the ALJ’s findings because the credibility determinations were not in conflict with the record and held that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s finding that Claimant was not an employee of TWI/Servco.

 

Mikha v. Director, OWCP

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