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.

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.

Longshore Fraud Nets Prison Time

Mervin J. Noel, 51, of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, plead guilty to one count of making false statements to continue receiving workers’ compensation benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. Noel began receiving longshore benefits and Social Security disability benefits after sustaining an injury while working on an offshore oil platform in 1994. His employer had LHWCA coverage through the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Corp. (“LWCC”). He also applied for and received SSDI benefits.

In 2007, Noel began operating a lawn care business without disclosing his income to either LWCC or SSA. He completed four separate Forms LS-200, Report of Earnings, at the request of LWCC, falsely stating he had no income. He also falsely reported to SSA that he had not worked for wages since being declared disabled.

Noel received $20,776 in LHWCA benefits and $118,220 in SSDI benefits that he was not entitled to based on his earnings.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth E. Foote sentenced Noel to six months in prison and six months at-home confinement and ordered Noel to pay $138,247 in restitution to LWCC and the United States.

Trial Court Disbelieved Plaintiff, Determined He Was Not a Seaman

Last week, Louisiana’s Third Circuit published a Jones Act decision wherein it affirmed the lower court’s decision that Plaintiff failed to carry his burden of proof that he was a Jones Act seaman.  Plaintiff began working for his employer in a land-based warehouse, but he expressed interest in offshore work.  Soon thereafter, Plaintiff began working as a helper on a platform fixed to the outer continental shelf; but he ate, slept, and used the restroom facilities on a vessel called the RAM VII.  Plaintiff was injured when a Teflon pipe weighing two-and-a-half pounds struck him in the face.  Plaintiff then filed a petition for damages wherein he alleged entitlement to compensation based on his status as a seaman under the Jones Act.  The trial court disagreed.

On appeal, Louisiana’s Third Circuit discussed Chandris, and the Supreme Court’s test for seaman status.  Essentially, Plaintiff complained that the “trial court incorrectly based its finding that he failed to carry his burden to prove that he was a Jones Act seaman solely based upon how much time he physically spent on a vessel.”  The appellate court disagreed:

Our review of the record does not indicate that the trial court found [Plaintiff] was not a seaman based solely because he was not working on the RAM VII 50% of the time.  Rather, it is clear that the trial court determined that [Plaintiff] was not credible and, as such, it did not give credence to his assertion that he spent 50% of his time working on the RAM VII.  The trial court then cited testimony contrary to [Plaintiff’s] assertion that he spent 50% of his time physically on the RAM VII.

In essence, the trial court did not believe Plaintiff’s allegations that he spent 50% of his time on a vessel.  Because the Supreme Court’s Chandris test requires consideration of the amount of time a seaman is on a vessel, Plaintiff’s lack of credibility was fatal to his claim.

But that’s not all.  The appellate court also discussed the evidence that refuted Plaintiff’s claims that he was a seaman.  The court cited testimony of a former employee, a present employee, and the employer’s safety manager.  The testimony refuted Plaintiff’s allegations that he worked 50% of the time on the RAM VII.  Indeed, “[t]he summation of the witness testimony can reasonably be interpreted that [Plaintiff’s] connection to the RAM VII was tenuous and, therefore, not substantial in duration or nature as required by the second prong of the Chandris test.”  Accordingly, Plaintiff was not a seaman and the trial court did not err.

Troglen v. Hydraulic Well Control, 2014-308 (La. App. 3 Cir. 10/8/14); — So. 3d —-.