Maritime Worker Not Entitled to Damages under 905(b) or Warranty of Seaworthiness

Section 905(b) of the LHWCA permits an injured maritime worker to bring suit against a vessel owner for negligence. In Scindia Steam Navigation Co. v. De Los Santos, the United States Supreme Court annunciated that a vessel owner owes three narrow duties to a maritime worker for purposes of 905(b). These duties include the: (1) turnover duty, (2) active control duty, and (3) duty to intervene.

In Willis v. McDonough Marine Service, the Plaintiff was injured when he tripped and fell on a temporary stair set that was used to access an offshore module from a barge. He subsequently filed a 905(b) action against the barge owner and bareboat charterer. In addition, plaintiff sought an unseaworthiness remedy on the grounds that he was a “Sieracki seaman.” The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that they did not breach the Scindia duties as a matter of law because they were not responsible for the placement of the stair set on the barge. They further contended that plaintiff was barred from an unseaworthiness remedy because he was a covered by the LHWCA.

The Eastern District of Louisiana held that the owner and bareboat charterer did not breach the Scindia duties because the defendants did not place the stair set on the barge and were not responsible for keeping it in a safe condition. The court also noted that the “active control duty” did not come into play because the barge was turned over to plaintiff’s employer, which was not a party to the case. Finally, the defendants did not owe a “duty to intervene” because there was no evidence that they had actual knowledge of the stair set’s placement on the barge.

The court also held that the plaintiff satisfied the status and situs tests for LHWCA coverage and, therefore, could not seek damages for unseaworthiness as a “Sieracki seaman.” While “Sieracki seamen” are entitled to an unseaworthiness remedy, the court explained that this is narrow class of persons who are excluded from coverage by the LHWCA and perform traditional seaman’s duties aboard vessels.  The court further opined that an unseaworthiness remedy would not have been available because the temporary stair set did not constitute an appurtenance to the barge.

Willis v. McDonough Marine Service

11th Circuit Addresses Maritime Salvage Case Arising out of Marina Fire

Under the law of salvage in general maritime law, a person who recovers another person’s ship or cargo after peril or loss at sea is entitled to a reward commensurate with the value of the property saved.  The essential elements of a salvage claim are: (1) A maritime peril from which the ship or other property could not have been rescued without the salvor’s assistance, (2) A voluntary act by the salvor ­– that is, he must be under no official or legal duty to render assistance, and (3) Success in saving, or helping to save at least part of the property at risk. Klein v. Unidentified Wrecked, etc., Vessel.  Regarding the first element, a maritime peril does not exist where the “vessel has the situation under control,” however, all that is necessary is that there be a “reasonable apprehension of peril.” Fine v. Rockwood.

In Biscayne Towing & Salvage, Inc. v. M/Y Backstage, a yacht at a marina caught fire and spread to other vessels. A towboat on the scene pulled one vessel out of its slip at the request of the fire department to create a firebreak.  The owner of next yacht in line, the M/Y BACKSTAGE, wanted to move his vessel but was prevented from doing so by the fire department. The vessel sustained extensive heat damage as a result.

The towing company filed a maritime salvage claim against the M/Y BACKSTAGE and its owner. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the M/Y BACKSTAGE, dismissing the complaint because “[the claimant] rendered indirect benefit to a vessel not in need of assistance.”  The towing company appealed.  On appeal, the U.S. 11th Circuit reversed, finding that there were genuine issues of material fact regarding whether or not the M/Y BACKSTAGE “could not have been rescued without the salvor’s assistance.” The court reserved resolution of “the purely legal question whether the existence of a maritime peril has a ‘needs-assistance’ component” as the defendant asserted.

Biscayne Towing & Salvage, Inc. v. M/Y Backstage

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

Mineral Lessee Does Not Have a Duty to Police the Waterways it Leases

In June 2014, Danny Luke was checking his crab traps when his skiff struck a submerged piling.  Mr. Luke’s vessel was damaged by the collision, and he sustained injuries to his head, neck, back, and other areas.  Mr. Luke alleges that the negligence of Hilcorp Energy Company and Roustabouts, Inc. caused the accident.  It is well established that a private company assumes liability for damages resulting from a collision of a boat with an obstruction in navigable waters when it has ownership, custody or is responsible for placement of the obstruction in the navigable waters.  Here, Hilcorp had held the mineral lease where the accident occurred since July 2010, and Roustabouts was contracted to provide oilfield construction services to Hilcorp.  Luke sued Hilcorp and Roustabouts in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

The defendants moved for summary judgment contending that they did not own, control, maintain, place, or have any connection to the piling that struck Mr. Luke’s vessel.  In an attempt to establish a genuine dispute of material fact, Mr. Luke focused on the facts that Hilcorp and Roustabouts worked in the general area, Roustabouts removed the piling after the accident, and Hilcorp failed to inspect the waterway it leased.  The court emphasized that the mere argued existence of a factual dispute does not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.  The court granted the motion, ruling that Mr. Luke failed to present any evidence that Hilcorp or Roustabouts owned or were responsible for the piling, and as such, owed no duty to Mr. Luke.  The court reasoned that a mineral lessee does not have a duty to those using navigable waterways to police the waters covered by its lease or to take steps to remove obstructions that it does not own, has not placed there, or does not maintain under its control.

Luke v. Hilcorp Energy Company, et al.