Articles by Will Bland, IV

Fifth Circuit Vacates Summary Judgment and Allows Consideration of Plaintiff’s Expert

The plaintiff allegedly sustained injuries when he fell on a vessel owned by his employer.  He filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleging negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness of the vessel.  The employer eventually filed a Motion for Summary Judgment and argued for dismissal of the case based on the plaintiff’s inability to meet his burden of proof with respect to causation of his injuries.  The plaintiff then filed an opposition memorandum and submitted a report by his maritime expert.  The District Court refused to consider the expert report because while it was signed, it was unsworn.  Summary judgment was granted and the case was dismissed.  The plaintiff appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

 

The Fifth Circuit noted that in granting the motion, the District Court had incorrectly relied on a prior version of Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which governs summary judgment.  Rule 56 was amended in 2010, including a subsection outlining the means of providing documentary support or opposition to a motion for summary judgment.  In rejecting the report, the District Court had looked to the prior rule regarding sworn affidavits.  The Fifth Circuit noted that the new Rule 56 clearly allows for the consideration of “documents . . . declarations, [and] other materials” in addition to sworn affidavits.  For purposes of summary judgment, the document may be presented in a form that would not be admissible at trial.  The plaintiff could later present the same evidence at trial in an admissible form.  In other words, the fact that the expert report was not a sworn affidavit was of no consequence for purposes of the Motion for Summary Judgment.  The Fifth Circuit vacated the granting of summary judgment and remanded the case to the District Court for consideration of the expert report.

 

Lee v. Offshore Logistical and Transport, LLC

Fifth Circuit Rejects Vicarious Liability Claim From Personnel Basket Injury

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion today addressing the vicarious liability of a principal contractor for its independent contractors.  The Plaintiff was employed as a crane mechanic by Gulf Crane Services and was working on an offshore platform owned and operated by Dynamic Offshore Resources, LLC.  He was injured in a personnel basket transfer from a boat to the platform.  He sued Dynamic, alleging it was vicariously liable for the negligence of its subcontractors, including the crane operator.  No Dynamic personnel were present on the platform.

 

The District Court dismissed the case on summary judgment and the Plaintiff appealed to the Fifth Circuit.  The Court noted that under Louisiana law, a principal is not liable for the activities of
an independent contractor committed in the course of performing its duties under the contract, with two exceptions: 1) the principal is liable for ultrahazardous activities contracted out to an independent contractor, and 2) the principal is liable if it has operational control over the acts of the independent contractor or authorizes unsafe practices.

 

The Court determined that a personnel basket transfer is not an ultrahazardous activity, regardless of the high wind that allegedly caused the basket to suddenly fall eight feet.  The law does not consider the specific conditions of an activity to determine whether it qualifies as ultrahazardous.  Furthermore, the Court found the Plaintiff could point to no evidence that Dynamic authorized an unsafe practice.  Instead, Plaintiff testified that he specifically requested the personnel basket transfer in high winds despite his “stop work authority”.  Dynamic in no way authorized an unsafe working condition.  Therefore the Plaintiff was unable to establish that his injury fell into either exception to the vicarious liability rule and Dynamic could not be held liable for the activities of its independent contractors.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in Dynamic’s favor.

 

Davis v. Dynamic Offshore Resources, LLC

Ninth Circuit Finds DBA Claimant Failed to Establish Employee-Employer Relationship

The Ninth Circuit recently addressed the employer-employee relationship required in a claim under the Defense Base Act.  Claimant worked as a contractor truck driver with the U.S. military in Iraq.  In 2005, he was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) and filed a claim under the DBA.  Claimant named his employer as Theodor Wille Intertrade, GmbH (TWI), a Swiss corporation that did business in Iraq as Servco Solutions, LLC (Servco).  TWI/Servco controverted the claim and denied Claimant was its employee.

 

The claim was submitted to the Administrative Law Judge on briefs.  Judge Paul Johnson reviewed multiple deposition transcripts (including two from the Claimant) and affidavits and denied the claim on the grounds that Claimant had failed to establish that there was an employer-employee relationship.  Claimant appealed to the Benefits Review Board, which affirmed Judge Johnson’s decision.  Claimant then appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

 

The Claimant testified that he was working for TWI/Servco or one of its subsidiaries and that he took instruction from a TWI/Servco employee, Eddie Nagel.  He also submitted a signed declaration from a friend who confirmed these allegations, as well as a letter of recommendation from Mr. Nagel on TWI/Servco letterhead.  Judge Jonnson discounted Claimant’s testimony based on multiple inconsistencies at his two depositions, gave no weight to the signed declaration, and credited Mr. Nagel’s explanation that he wrote the letter out of sympathy, but did not supervise the Claimant.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed the ALJ’s findings because the credibility determinations were not in conflict with the record and held that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s finding that Claimant was not an employee of TWI/Servco.

 

Mikha v. Director, OWCP

Fifth Circuit: Maritime Carpenter Not Covered by LHWCA

The Fifth Circuit recently issued a new decision addressing the limits of jurisdiction under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.  The claimant, a maritime carpenter, was allegedly injured at the employer’s waterside fabrication yard in Houma, La.  At the time of the incident, the claimant was assisting in the construction of a housing module that was to be incorporated into a tension leg offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.  The claimant filed a claim under the LHWCA, alleging he was covered by the Act as a shipbuilder, or in the alternative that he was covered by its extension under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.

 

Following a formal hearing, the Administrative Law Judge determined that the claimant was not covered by the Act and denied benefits.  The Claimant appealed to the Benefits Review Board, which affirmed the ALJ’s decision.  The Claimant appealed again to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

 

The Fifth Circuit evaluated the purpose of the housing module as an eventual component part of the platform.  The Court turned to the Supreme Court’s Lozman and Dutra decisions to determine what constitutes a “vessel”.  Because the platform was not practically intended for maritime transportation, it did not qualify as a vessel.  Further, because the housing module was not a vessel, the claimant was not engaged in maritime employment as a shipbuilder at the time of the incident and therefore did not meet the “status” requirement of the LHWCA.  The Court then turned to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Pacific Operators Offshore v. Valladolid to determine whether he was covered under OCSLA.  In Valladolid, the Supreme Court held that for a claimant to be covered under OCSLA, he must establish a “substantial nexus” between the injury and extractive operations on the OCS.  The Fifth Circuit concluded that the claimant’s onshore job of building a dining quarters for an offshore platform was too attenuated from OCS operations and therefore he was not covered by the OCSLA.  The Court affirmed the denial of benefits.

 

Baker v. Gulf Island Marine Fabricators, LLC