Tort Law’s “Zone of Danger” Test is Not Applicable to Longshore Psych Claims

2572917367_74b111ac08_o - forkliftWhile operating a forklift, claimant accidentally struck and killed a fellow employee.  Claimant’s testimony revealed that, after the accident, he and other employees attempted to extricate the decedent’s body from underneath the forklift.  The day after the accident, claimant first sought medical attention for a psychological injury arising from the forklift incident.  Claimant saw multiple mental health professionals.  After a formal hearing to address claimant’s request for Longshore benefits, an administrative law judge awarded benefits despite Employer’s argument that claimant did not meet the requirements of the “zone of danger” test.  On appeal, the Benefits Review Board affirmed.

At the outset, it must be noted that the “zone of danger” test argued by the employer in this case is not the “zone of special danger” test referenced in many Defense Base Act cases.  Instead, the employer argued in favor of importing the “zone of danger” test applied in tort law. The “zone of danger” test relied upon by the employer would limit recovery for negligent infliction of emotional distress injuries “to those plaintiffs who sustain a physical impact as a result of a defendant’s negligent conduct, or who are placed in immediate risk of physical harm by that conduct.”

The  Board  dispatched the employer’s “zone of danger” argument:

We agree with claimant and the Director that the “zone of danger” test, upon which employer relies, is a tort concept which does  not apply to the workers’ compensation provisions of the Longshore Act.  As noted by the Director, employer cites five federal court decisions in which the “zone of danger” test was applied to limit plaintiff’s recovery for the negligent infliction of emotional distress.  . . .  employer’s reliance on these cases is misplaced, however, as its argument fails to acknowledge the critical distinction between tort actions, which rely on common law fault and negligence principles, and workers’ compensation claims, which are not governed by those principles.

. . .

Thus, as we reject employer’s position that the line of cases applying the “zone of danger” test in tort actions for the negligent infliction of emotional distress should be extended to workers’ compensation claims under the Longshore Act, we affirm the administrative law judge’s rejection of employer’s contention that the “zone of danger” test precludes an award of disability compensation in this case.

Jackson v. Ceres Marine Terminals, BRB No. 14-0071 and14-0071A (2014).

Forklift image courtesy of Flickr user Jaxport.

What to Do When Your Dock is Damaged By a Ship With a Compulsory Pilot on Board

5223924101_a0488c4e25_zPilotage has existed since ancient times and is as necessary and important now to commercial shipping as it was when Roman law set forth the obligation on the part of the vessel to take a pilot.  A pilot is employed because he is presumed to have knowledge of tides, currents, and their effect upon the ship and all other dangers affecting the safety of the vessel due to local conditions.  In the United States, compulsory pilotage laws pre-date the Revolution.  Early on, Congress recognized that it would be wiser to leave regulation of local pilotage grounds to the individual states.

What happens, however, if a foreign ship carrying a compulsory pilot allides with your dock and causes damage?  Who is responsible—the ship, its master, or the pilot?  What should you, as dock owner, do?

The reason that a vessel employs a pilot, whether compulsory or voluntary, is in large measure because such an individual is expected to have expert local knowledge of the navigable waterways.  He is charged with knowledge and awareness of local conditions, including both published obstacles and dangers not evident on charts or from outward appearances.  The courts have found that pilots may be charged with knowledge of a local condition as a matter of law.  As a result, the courts have consistently come to the conclusion that a pilot may be held individually liable for damage caused by his negligent navigation to the vessel which he is piloting or to third parties which is the result of his failure to exercise due care.

Although a pilot might be regarded as an independent contractor as respects the ship he is aboard and its owners, he is at all times subject to the ultimate control of the ship’s master.  Even though the pilot is deemed to be an expert in navigation of vessels that he guides over his pilotage grounds, the master of the vessel is still in command of the vessel and must, under appropriate circumstances, intervene, interfere, warn or even take over and relieve the pilot.  This duty arises if the master of the vessel observes or discovers incompetency of the pilot or it becomes manifest that the pilot is steering the vessel into danger.  Thus, the courts have required the master to carefully observe and monitor the actions of the pilot.

When damage occurs, the prudent dock owner must move quickly, especially when the offending vessel flies a foreign flag.  While you may be able to procure jurisdiction over the pilot and, if he is found liable, have judgment rendered against him, this remedy may be mere delusion as he will likely not be able to respond to such a judgment.  You may be left with no remedy if the vessel leaves port.

Consequently, the dock owner should look to relief provided by Supplemental Admiralty Rules B and C found in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  These rules provide for attachment and seizure, respectively, of the vessel.

Rule C addresses seizure, which allows anyone with a maritime lien against a vessel to arrest the vessel and proceed against it in a so-called in rem action.  The in rem action is based on the fiction of the personality of the vessel.  When the vessel allided with your dock, the damage it caused immediately gave rise to a maritime lien.  In the in rem action, you proceed against the vessel itself, called the res, to satisfy that lien.  Rule B, on the other hand, addresses attachment, a procedure in which the property of the vessel owner is held in order to compel the owner to submit to the personal jurisdiction of the court, and in order to provide a fund from which any judgment against the owner may be satisfied.  Any property of the owner which can be found in the district, not just the offending vessel, is subject to attachment under Rule B.

By seizing the vessel, the dock owner has security to cover his damages. The vessel owner may post security to cover the dock owner’s claim and the vessel can be released. Mere threat of seizure often results in security being posted, by way of a bond or letter of undertaking from the vessel’s insurer.

At the same time, the dock owner should move the court to require the key members of the vessel’s crew to give their depositions for perpetuation.

In sum, if the vessel owner does not agree to come forward and post security, the dock owner must arrest and/or attach the vessel and proceed both in rem against the vessel and in personam against the owner.  If the owner agrees to post security for the value of the claim, the security can be substituted for the vessel, allowing its release, and providing a fund for the satisfaction of any judgment from the claim.  On motion, the court may require the crew to be deposed or other discovery taken within a given period of time, although if they have already departed, arranging for their transportation may be the plaintiff’s responsibility.

Rules B and C of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allow a party aggrieved by a foreign vessel to force the tortfeasor into court by seizing the offending vessel (or, in the case of attachment, another vessel of the same owner), although recovery may well be limited to the value of the vessel.  By acting quickly to arrest and attach the offending vessel, the dock owner can protect himself from damage caused even by a foreign vessel under compulsory p­­ilotage.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Fifth Circuit Roles Back Seaman’s Entitlement to Punitive Damages

3367543296_1470ef5247_zThis article originally appeared in WorkBoat Magazine.

The December 2013 Legal Talk column addressed the very significant ruling a three judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in McBride v. Estis Well Service. That case signaled a major expansion in the law regarding semen’s entitlement to recover punitive damages under the general maritime law.  The availability of punitive damages had been extremely limited since the 1990 Supreme Court case of Miles v. Apex, which held that non-pecuniary damages, which would include punitive damages and similar non-economic type losses, were not recoverable by seamen, whose legal remedies are largely governed by the Jones Act.

Courts have chipped away at the scope of the Miles ruling since then, most notably by the Supreme Court itself in 2009 when the Townsend case recognized that a seaman could get punitive damages for his employer’s willful failure to pay maintenance and cure.  The McBride case took that holding a huge step further by allowing seamen to recover punitive damages for unseaworthiness claims arising under the general maritime law.

The McBride case, however, was recently reconsidered by the entire Fifth Circuit en banc, which reversed the previous ruling by the three judge panel.  Now, the rule in the Fifth Circuit is that Jones Act seamen have no cause of action for punitive damages for either negligence or unseaworthiness. The latest McBride ruling is in keeping with the general pronouncement of the Supreme Court’s Miles v. Apex case regarding the unavailability of non-pecuniary damages in Jones Act cases.

While this significant ruling reflects a trend followed by other federal appeals courts, this issue remains unsettled in some jurisdictions. The Supreme Court may once again have to take up the punitive damages issue to establish uniformity among all courts on this important aspect of maritime law.

Excellent image courtesy of Flickr user Andrew Magill.

Eastern District of Missouri Holds that Plaintiff Was Not a Jones Act Seaman

Welder by Greg Younger - FlickrDefendant owns a large facility on the bank of the Mississippi River that loads materials onto barges and rail cars.  Also, Defendant owns four large towboats.  Plaintiff worked for Defendant for the past eleven years, spending 90% of his time “welding various metal components around Defendant’s land-based facilities, on Defendant’s towboats, and on Defendant’s barges.”  The remaining 10% of Plaintiff’s work was spent performing “various tasks on land and on docked boats, including reworking cable and transmission lines and doing repair work.”

Plaintiff was injured while riding as a passenger on a water taxi owned by Defendant, and used to transport crew members to and from job sites.  Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging negligence under the Jones Act.  Defendant filed a motion for summary decision arguing that Plaintiff was not a seaman.  The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri agreed.  Although Plaintiff contributed to the function of Defendant’s vessels, he did not have a sufficiently substantial connection to Defendant’s vessels:

[T]he Court agrees with Defendant that no reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff’s connection to the fleet of vessels is substantial in terms of its nature. The Supreme Court has indicated that Chandris’s second prong is intended to identify those employees “whose work regularly exposes them to the special hazards and disadvantages to which they who go down to sea in ships are subjected.”  Lower courts have noted that the “special hazards and disadvantages” faced by seamen include the “need to fight fires without outside assistance, the need to abandon ship, the need to survive exposure to inclement weather until help arrives, potential delay or inconvenience in being transported offsite to receive medical attention, and being stuck on a vessel under the control of its Master and operator for extended periods of time until the next port call.”  In contrast, maritime hazards that are faced by longshoremen and seamen alike—such as the danger of falling overboard, the trip-and-fall hazards associated with walking on decks, the risks of injuries while handling lines, the risks associated with wind-gusts and river turbulence, and the dangers associated with the movement of docked vessels in the water—are not considered perils of the sea for purposes of the Jones Act inquiry.

Courts have frequently found that individuals who work exclusively or primarily aboard docked vessels are, as a matter of law, not seamen because they are not regularly exposed to the perils of the sea, especially when other circumstances indicate that the individual is not assigned to the vessel as a member of its crew.

The Court has identified some cases in which courts have found that a plaintiff who worked largely aboard docked vessels was a seaman; however, those cases have involved other factors suggesting a substantial connection to the vessel, such as the plaintiff being assigned to the vessel, the plaintiff performing traditionally sea-based duties, and/or the plaintiff being treated as a Jones Act employee by his or her employer.

When Plaintiff’s duties are viewed in light of the above cases, it is clear that no reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff has a substantial connection to Defendant’s vessels that satisfies the second prong of the Chandris test. First, like the plaintiffs in Vasquez and Saienni, who worked primarily aboard docked vessels and only rarely on boats that were under way, Plaintiff is not regularly exposed to the special hazards and disadvantages faced by those who go out to sea. Plaintiff does 90% of his welding work (which is itself 90% of his work) “on land or connected to the land right there on the dock.” Although he boards docked vessels to do welding and other work, he only rarely does any work on vessels while they are moving up and down the river. Moreover, none of the other factors courts have used to find seaman status are present here. Plaintiff is not assigned to any vessel and is not a crew member of any vessel. After he finishes a project performed aboard a vessel or barge, he returns to shore. He admits that if he is assigned to anything, it is his welding truck. He does not regularly perform traditionally sea-based activities such as piloting towboats or acting as a lookout, and he has no marine license or marine radio, and uses his truck’s radio for land-based operations. Taken together, these facts establish that Plaintiff is not “a member of the vessel [s’] crew,” but is rather “a land-based employee who happen[ed] to be working on the vessel[s] at a given time.”

Because no reasonable jury could find that the second prong of Chandris is satisfied, Plaintiff is not a seaman within the meaning of the Jones Act, and Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s Jones Act claim.

Turner v. Wayne B. Smith, Inc., No. 2:13-cv-100-SPM, 2014 WL 6775796 (E.D. Mo. 12/2/14). Excellent image courtesy of Flickr user Greg Younger.