Borrowed Servant Doctrine Does Not Equate to Assignment Change

To qualify for seaman status a worker must establish that his duties “contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission,” and “have a substantial connection to a vessel in navigation both in duration and nature.” Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995). As a rule of thumb, the worker must spend in excess of thirty percent of working time aboard a vessel to satisfy the substantial connection prong of the test. To determine the seaman status issue, courts often confine their analysis of a worker’s employment to periods after he receives a change in work assignment in which his essential duties change.

In Wilcox v. Wild Well Control, Inc., the Fifth Circuit addressed the interplay between the borrowed servant doctrine and the seaman status test. The plaintiff was loaned by his employer to Wild Well Control, Inc. (the borrowing employer) to work as a welder on a platform decommissioning project offshore. He was allegedly injured from a gas explosion on the well and subsequently filed suit under the Jones Act. The Plaintiff argued that seaman status should be determined from the time that he began to work for Wild Well, rather than the total course of his employment. The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument, relying on precedent that seaman status was to be determined by the totality of a worker’s employment with his employer. The critical take away from this decision is that a change in work assignment does not necessarily occur each time that an employee is loaned to a borrowing employer.

Wilcox v. Wild Well Control, Inc.

No Punitive Damages Under Jones Act or General Maritime Law

Plaintiff, John Paul Jones, Jr., brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana for damages pursuant to the Jones Act and the general maritime law for injuries he allegedly sustained during the course and scope of his employment aboard the M/V K MARINE III.  Defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims for punitive damages under the Jones Act and the general maritime law, arguing that such damages are not recoverable as a matter of law.  Relying on the Fifth Circuit’s recent decision in McBride v. Estis Well Service, LLC, the court found such damages unavailable as a matter of law.

In McBride, the Fifth Circuit held that, under the Jones Act and general maritime law, Congress limited survivors’ recover to pecuniary losses.

Jones v. Yellow Fin Marine Servs., LLC

Limitation of Liability Claim Dismissed as Time Barred

The Limitation Act allows a vessel owner to limit liability for damage or injury to the value of the vessel or the owner’s interest in the vessel. To invoke the protections of the Act, the vessel owner must bring an action in district court within six months after a claimant gives the owner written notice of a claim.

At the heart of the dispute in In re The Complaint of RLB, was whether a series of letters exchanged between the vessel owner’s lawyers and the lawyers of the injured party were sufficient. The district court dismissed the vessel owner’s Limitation Action as time barred, and the vessel owner appealed.

The Fifth Circuit addressed the issue of: (1) whether a series of letters, none of which constitutes notice on its own, may be considered together to find notice in the aggregate, (2) whether plaintiff’s letters convey a “reasonable possibility” of a potential claim, and (3) whether those letters establish a “reasonable possibility” that the amount of the claim might exceed the value of the Vessel.

The Court ruled that a written communication may serve as notice under the act in lieu of a filed complaint, and stated that it makes sense to consider a body of correspondence. The Court considered the entire series of letters to analyze the requirements of the Act.

The Court had not previously addressed the issue of what a writing must contain to find a vessel owner had notice of a potential claim, and settled upon the plaintiff’s fact intensive approach. It examined each letter and identified two that explicitly referenced filing a lawsuit dated more than six months prior to the filing of the Limitation Actions.  The two letters conveyed a “reasonable possibility” of a potential claim to the vessel owner.

In determining whether the vessel owner had notice that there was a reasonable possibility of damages in excess of the vessel’s value, the Court relied upon precedent that the vessel owner should have realized the potential for damages in excess of its vessel’s value in light of the severity of the injures.  The vessel owner was aware of the injured party’s potential wrongful death suit.

For these reasons, the Court found that the vessel owner had written notice more than six months prior to filing its Limitation Action, and affirmed the district court’s dismissal.

In re The Complaint of RLB Contracting, Inc., as Owner of the Dredge Jonathan King Boyd its Engine, Tackle, Gear for Exoneration or Limitation of Liab.

Geographical Proximity is Not the Only Factor in Deciding OCSLA Jurisdiction

Robert Lewis, Jr. filed suit under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), alleging injuries to his left elbow, cervical spine, and lumbar spine as the result of an accident that occurred while working on Ram-Powell, a tension-leg fixed platform, located in the Gulf of Mexico in Viosca Knoll Block 956.  The parties agreed that under OCSLA the substantive law for injuries occurring on fixed offshore platforms located on the outer continental shelf is the law of the adjacent state.  However, they disagreed as to which state’s law applied.  Plaintiff argued that Louisiana law should apply as it was the geographically closest to the platform in question.  Defendants, on the other hand, asserted that Alabama was the adjacent state and its law should apply, and filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue.

The court turned to the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Snyder Oil Corp. v. Samedan Oil Corp. in resolving the issue.  Samedan set forth four factors in determining adjacency: (1) geographical proximity; (2) which coast federal agencies consider the subject platform to be “off of”; (3) prior court determinations; and (4) projected boundaries if the states’ borders were extended to the shelf.   Plaintiff argued that not only was Ram-Powell geographically closer to Louisiana, but that he also travelled to and from the platform via Louisiana and had no connections to Alabama.  Plaintiff further argued that there were no controlling decisions on Block 956, and that any evidence regarding the projected boundary is not as determinative as geographic proximity.

In finding for Defendants, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana recognized that while Block 956 was geographically closer to Louisiana due to its peculiar boot shape, the other three factors, viewed together, indicated that Alabama was the adjacent state.  First, various federal and state agencies considered the platform to be off the coast of Alabama.  Next, there was indeed a prior decision ruling that the Ram-Powell was adjacent to Alabama; and the platform in question in Samedon was further to the west than Ram-Powell, and it too was considered adjacent to Alabama.  Furthermore, the projected boundaries as set forth by the Minerals Management Service (MMS), U.S. Commerce Department, and U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) all indicate that Block 956 is within the portion of the outer continental shelf of Alabama.  Lastly, the court rejected Plaintiff’s state of transit argument, stating that the geographic proximity factor does not place import on the state of transit.  Thus, partial summary judgment was granted and Alabama law applied.

Lewis v. Helmerich & Payne International Drilling Co., et al.