Gangway Permanently Attached to Pier is Not Maritime Locality

In Adamson v. Port of Bellingham, No. 14-1804, 2015 WL 4716421 (W.D. Wash. August 6, 2015), a U.S. District Court in Washington was asked to determine whether the plaintiff’s common law negligence claim qualified as a maritime tort outside of admiralty jurisdiction, thus invoking Washington state law as opposed to maritime substantive law.  Plaintiff was an officer aboard the car ferry M/V COLUMBIA, owned by the State of Alaska.  Plaintiff was on a gangway leading from the port to the ship when it fell, injuring her.  The gangway was part of a steel structure permanently affixed to a pier extending from the land over the water.  In determining whether Plaintiff’s claim qualified as a maritime tort, the Court cited the two-part test identified by the Ninth Circuit in Taghadomi v. United States, 401 F.3d 1080, 1084 (9th Cir. 2005): 1) the tort must occur on or over navigable water to provide “situs” or “locality,” and 2) there must be a significant “nexus” between the actions giving rise to the claim and traditional maritime activity.


Turning to the “locality” component, the Court noted that the locality test excludes injuries occurring on permanent, fixed structures such as piers, jetties, bridges, and ramps.  The Court acknowledged cases where gangplanks or other methods of ingress and egress from a vessel met the locality test but noted that in those instances the claims were made against the vessel or vessel owner where there was a duty to provide a safe means of embarking and disembarking the ship.  In this case, Plaintiff did not bring suit against the State of Alaska, as owner of the M/V COLUMBIA.  Instead, the State of Alaska was made a third-party defendant and the claims against it were later dismissed on sovereign immunity-related grounds.  Since the Plaintiff did not bring a claim against the vessel, which may have owed a duty of care to its crew with respect to means of embarking and disembarking, and the fact that the gangway was permanently affixed to the pier, the Court found that the Plaintiff failed to meet the locality requirement of the test for maritime tort.


Adamson v. Port of Bellingham

Rig Owner Not Liable for Failing to Search for Lost and Submerged Rig

A tanker vessel allided with an unmarked and submerged wreck of a jack-up drilling rig that was lost during Hurricane Ike. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the jack-up drilling rig owner discovered that the rig was no longer moored in the Gulf of Mexico. The rig owner timely searched for the rig using aerial searches of the Gulf of Mexico and subsea sonar searches within the estimated drift path of the rig. These search efforts proved unsuccessful, and the jack-up drilling rig owner concluded its search. Later evidence showed that within ten hours of Hurricane Ike’s passage, the jack-up drilling rig traveled 100.9 miles west-northwest, capsized, and came to rest in 115 feet of water in the South Sabine Point Lightering Area, approximately 65 miles south of Galveston, Texas. The tanker vessel allided with the wreck at this location approximately six months later, causing substantial damage.

The tanker owner asserted that the jack-up drilling rig owner was liable under 33 U.S.C. § 409 for failure to mark the wreck. The case proceeded to a bench trial. After all parties put on the majority of their evidence and the tanker owner rested its case, the district court granted the rig owner’s motion for judgment, finding it had conducted a full, diligent, and good-faith search for jack-up drilling rig, but was unable to find it. The tanker owner appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit.

The tanker owner’s primary argument was that the district court applied an incorrect legal standard in making its factual finding that the jack-up drilling rig owner conducted a full, good-faith search. The tanker owner argued that the district court should have placed greater weight on the fact that the drilling rig owner did not search in the area where jack-up drilling rig ultimately rested, because that was an area where the wrecked rig would constitute a hazard to navigation.

The Court found no reversible error based on the evidence presented at trial, that the search the jack-up drilling rig owner did conduct was full, diligent, and in good faith, even though the jack-up drilling rig owner did not search the area 100 miles away considered a hazard to navigation.

ENSCO Offshore Co v. M/V SATILLA

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.

Employer’s Lax Investigation into Crew Member’s Maintenance and Cure Claim Ends up Costing Big

If a seaman becomes ill or is injured while in the service of the vessel, then the shipowner owes the seaman maintenance and cure ­– a contractual form of compensation similar to workers’ comp. The employer’s duty encompasses situations where a seaman has a pre-existing medical condition that becomes manifest while working for the vessel. Importantly, courts are in agreement that any doubts as to a shipowner’s responsibility for maintenance and cure are resolved in favor of the seaman.

The Eastern District of Louisiana’s decision in Jefferson v. Baywater Drilling, LLC reaffirms the notion that courts sitting in admiralty will continue to scrutinize an employer’s denial of maintenance and cure benefits.  In this case, the plaintiff, having been on the defendant’s oil rig for about 11 hours, began experiencing a painful skin condition that produced blisters on his feet. It was later determined that he was suffering from a rare skin disorder where the top layer of skin rapidly dies and begins to shed. Once he alerted his supervisor about his condition, it took an additional five hours for Baywater to transfer Jefferson to shore.

Once Baywater’s claims adjuster arrived at the hospital, he began asking Jefferson non-medical questions, but was eventually asked to leave by one of the nurses who felt the adjuster was harassing Jefferson. The adjuster was unable to get a medical authorization from Jefferson.  Baywater also interviewed witnesses and reviewed reports of the incident. As a result of this investigation, Baywater decided not to pay any maintenance and cure based on its conclusion that Jefferson’s condition had actually manifested prior to his arrival on the rig.

The court considered Baywater’s investigation “impermissibly lax” based in large part on its failure to review any medical opinion or administer any test that supported its theory that Jefferson’s illness had manifested prior to arriving on the rig. In effect, the court found that Baywater made a “medical determination without medical evidence.”  For this reason, the court held that Baywater was arbitrary and capricious in denying maintenance and cure to Jefferson, subjecting Baywater to compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney’s fees and pre-judgment interest from the date Jefferson had to leave the rig.

Jefferson v. Baywater Drilling, LLC