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

Liability for Medical Malpractice

The Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit (Alabama, Florida and Georgia) has opened the door to a potential flood of liability exposure for vessel operators for negligence of shipboard doctors and other medical personnel.

The 2014 case of Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. arose out of the injury and death of Pasquale Vaglio, an 82-year-old cruise ship passenger who fell and struck his head while disembarking for a shore side excursion in Bermuda. Immediately after the accident, Vaglio was taken to the medical facilities aboard Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas for treatment. The ship’s nurse failed to properly assess Vaglio’s condition. When Vaglio was examined further by the ship’s doctor hours later, he was in need of critical emergency treatment for a brain injury.  He was airlifted to a New York hospital and died a week later. Vaglio’s family brought suit against Royal Caribbean, claiming that it was liable for the negligence of its medical personnel.

The suit was initially dismissed by the trial court, based on longstanding precedent that historically protected vessel operators from the negligence of shipboard medical staff. That general exception to a vessel operator’s liability was based on the rationale that the nature of a physician’s specialized skill and training made it unreasonably impractical to fall within the scope of management and/or oversight by the vessel owner/employer.  Other courts had held that vessel operators were incapable of controlling onboard medical personnel because the patient typically determined the nature and extent of the treatment. In breaking from the longstanding law on this issue, the 11th Circuit re-instated the case. Essential to its ruling was what the appellate court noted as a progression of modern technology over the past decades and the expansion of the employment of medical personnel in corporate settings, including the shipping industry. Such developments, in the 11th Circuit’s view, have made it easier for vessel management to oversee and control the medical personnel they employ.   Consequently, the Franza case holds that vessel owners and operators can now be held liable for the medical malpractice of physicians that serve aboard their vessels. Royal Caribbean said it may appeal the ruling.

This article first appeared in Work Boat magazine. It was also posted on March 1, 2015, at Work Boat’s website.

Fifth Circuit Addresses Definition of Seaman Under the Fair Labor Standards Act

3338710223_a1ba090d11_zUnder the Fair Labor Standards Act, for every hour that an employee works beyond 40 hours in a seven day work week, that employee must be paid overtime, that is, one and a half times his normal hourly rate. However, if the employee meets the statutory definition of a “seaman,” then he is not entitled to overtime pay.

29 C.F.R. § 783.32 lays out the criteria for being a seaman: An employee will ordinarily be regarded as a seaman, (1) If the employee is a master or subject to the authority of a master (2) aboard a vessel (3) performing service primarily as an aid to the operation of the vessel as a means of transportation, and (4) does not perform a substantial amount of different work.

In Coffin v. Blessey Marine Services, Inc., No. 12-20144 (5th Cir. 11/13/14), the Fifth Circuit addressed whether or not vessel-based tankermen were ‘seamen’ under the statute.

The dispute in Blessey arose when the plaintiffs – vessel-based tankermen – sought to collect overtime pay from their employer under the FLSA. The seamen-non-seamen distinction was crucial because the plaintiffs – working an average 84 hours in a seven day period – would not be entitled to recover if they fell within the seamen exclusion under the FLSA.

Blessey is a company that transports liquid cargo by vessels throughout inland and coastal waterways. The plaintiffs in Blessey worked as tankermen as part of a crew aboard a “tow-unit.” The tow-unit consists of one towboat and two tank barges that are connected through a system of cables. Each member of a tow-unit crew has specific responsibilities. A “wheelman,” (captain), and a deckhand are customarily recognized as seamen. A tankerman’s status as a seaman is less clear.

Tankermen’s duties include many of the same duties that deckhands perform. Some of these duties include: cleaning, handling lines, changing engine filters, tying off to docks, painting, troubleshooting engine problems and handling running lights. As deckhand duties, these tasks are recognized as seamen work. In addition to these traditional seamen tasks, tankermen are responsible for loading and unloading the tank barge’s liquid cargo. Some of these tasks include: oiling grease-fittings on barges, cleaning oil spots on barges, performing barge readiness inspections, and making sure all hatches and dogs are tightly secured.

Plaintiffs argued that the tasks exclusively required for tankermen – loading and unloading – determined their status as non-seamen under the statute. Plaintiffs principally relied on Owens v. SeaRiver Maritime, Inc. 272 F.3d 698 (5th Cir. 2001). In Owens, the court held that loading and unloading duties while part of a “land-based Strike Team,” did not meet the statutory seaman definition. In this case, plaintiffs argued that Owens stood for the principle that loading and unloading a vessel is always non-seaman work.

The court disagreed. First, the plaintiff in Owens only sought overtime for his employment as part of the land-based Strike Team, not as a tankerman. Second, the language in Owens did not foreclose the possibility that any employee who performed loading or unloading operations was categorically a non-seaman. Owens acknowledged that performing these operations was not dispositive of status. Instead, the general character of the work is determinative.

Considering the seamen factors in 29 C.F.R. § 783.32, the parties agreed that the plaintiffs were under the authority of a master and that they were members of a crew of a vessel. The parties disagreed as to whether or not the plaintiff’s performed service in operating the vessel for transportation.

The court acknowledged many situations in which loading and unloading operations were merely incidental to the vessel’s operation, and such employees were not seamen under the statute. For example, employees who only loaded and unloaded the vessel at the beginning and end of a voyage and had little other seamen-related duties would not be seamen.

In this case, the court found that the tankermans’ duties were intertwined with the safe operation of the vessels themselves. Namely, safe loading and unloading affects a tank-barge’s seaworthiness and navigational integrity. Further, the plaintiffs’ conceded that their regular duties such as keeping watch and making sure the barge is level were supposed to ensure a safe operation. Finding that the loading and unloading duties in this case could not be separated from the traditional seamen duties, the court did not have to address the question of ‘substantial different work.’

Thus, the court reversed the district court and held that in this case the vessel-based tankermen were in fact seamen under the FLSA.

Excellent image courtesy of Flickr user greeblie.