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

No Expansion of the Longshoreman Definition

Coming before the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals  was the question of whether the Claimant was covered by the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act or the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act.  After reviewing the situs and status requirements of the LHWCA, the Court found he did not fall under the longshoremen classification.

Claimant was an employee of UNO Enterprises, LLC. At the time of his injury, he was working under the direction and control of M. Matt Durrance, LLC, a heavy construction company which was hired by Breaux’s Bay Craft to construct a boat ramp on Bayou Tech in Loreauville, Louisiana- a navigable waterway. On the date of his injury, Claimant was cutting timber to be used for construction of the ramp. The uncontested facts of the case established that Claimant was in a grassy area between thirty and one hundred feet from the ramp while cutting the timber.

The Court engaged in a “situs” and “status” analysis to determine whether Claimant met the definition of longshoreman within the meaning of the LHWCA.  The Court was not persuaded by the comparison of the boat ramp to a pier, which is an enumerated situs under the Act, as there was no evidence to establish that the ramp was “a structure built on pilings extending from land to navigable water.” Furthermore, there was no evidence to establish the adjoining area in question was customarily used by the employer in the loading, unloading, repairing, dismantling or building a vessel. Claimant therefore did not meet situs or status test necessary to be covered by the LHWCA.  The Court noted that the Claimant “was performing work on property used to construct physical reinforcements to stabilize the earth around a boat launch.” Claimant’s involvement in building the boat ramp was deemed insufficient to trigger application of the LHWCA.

Hernandez v. Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Corp.

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.