U.S. Fifth Circuit reverses district court’s grant of summary judgment, finding that ROV Technician was not a seaman as a matter of law

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that a district court erred in finding that a plaintiff, who was a technician who navigated and controlled remotely operated vehicles (“ROVs”) for offshore applications, qualified as a “seaman” as a matter of law. ROVs are unoccupied mechanical devices used to service and repair offshore, underwater drilling rigs. Technicians navigate and control ROVs aboard an ROV Support Vessel, to which the ROVs remain tethered while in use. Technicians work inside a windowless shipping container converted into an ROV command center located on the support vessel. In the context of his claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) to recover unpaid wages for overtime worked during his employment, the district court granted summary judgment against the plaintiff, finding that he qualified as a seaman under the FLSA and was exempt from the Act’s overtime provisions.

 

The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling, finding that the jurisprudence upon which the district court relied was distinguishable. It focused on the fact that ROV Technicians had a completely separate command structure than that of the tankerman considered in the Coffin case relied upon by the district court. Thus, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court erred in granting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment because it had not been established as a matter of law that the seaman exemption applied. The matter was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

 

Halle et. Al. v. Galliano Marine Service, LLC

Punitive Damages Not Available For Failure To Pay Maintenance & Cure

In a case of first impression, the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington has held that punitive damages for the failure to pay maintenance & cure are not available where seaman’s status is reasonably disputed.

Plaintiff was a pile driver hired to work in the construction of a wharf for the federal government. He was assigned to work in connection with “flexi-floats,” which are used as floating work platforms in maritime construction. He alleged he injured his back in the course of his employment.

Plaintiff sued under the Jones Act and sought punitive damages for the failure to pay maintenance & cure. The employer filed a Motion for Summary Judgment seeking dismissal of the punitive damages claim. Whether Plaintiff was a seaman was disputed and the court previously denied Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to whether he was a seaman. The court held:

“Because reasonable minds could differ on whether Plaintiff’s duties rendered him a seaman, no rational juror could find that Defendants’ opposition to maintenance and cure was in bad faith. Therefore, the Court grants Defendants’ motion for summary judgment and finds that punitive damages are unavailable for Defendants’ allegedly wrongful refusal to pay maintenance and cure.”

Ward v. Ehw Constructors, U.S.D.C. W.D.WA. No. C15-5338

District Court Allows Jones Act Matter to Proceed

Plaintiff filed a Jones Act complaint in United States District Court, Northern District of Mississippi. Plaintiff alleged that he was severely injured during a personnel basket transfer while working in his capacity as a barge-loading supervisor for Defendant, his employer. Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), alleging that Plaintiff was a Longshoreman whose exclusive remedy was benefits under the Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (“LHWCA”).

 

The court, in applying Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995), looked to the four corners of Plaintiff’s complaint to see if he had sufficiently pleaded: (1) that his duties contributed to the function of a vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission; and (2) that Plaintiff had a connection to a vessel in navigation or to an identifiable group of vessels. As to the first factor, Plaintiff alleged in his complaint that he was regularly loading fracking sand and that his job responsibilities required him to board and remain aboard inland river barges; thus Plaintiff alleged that his actions contributed to the mission of the barge fleet. As to the second factor, Plaintiff alleged that he was assigned to perform work aboard an identifiable fleet of barge vessels and that he was required to work “every morning” on those barges. In denying the 12(b)(6) motion, the court held that Plaintiff had sufficiently alleged that he had status under the Jones Act.

 

Defendant also argued that it could not be a Jones Act employer because it was not a vessel owner. However, the court found no merit to this argument, citing Barrios v. Louisiana Construction Materials Co., 465 F.2d 1157 (5th Cir. 1972), which held that a Jones Act claim only requires proof of an employment relationship with an employer who assigns the worker to a task creating a vessel connection. Thus, it was not necessary for Defendant to be a vessel owner or operator to incur Jones Act liability.

 

Welch v. Prop Transport & Trading, LLC, et al

Alleged Seaman’s Claims Dismissed for Lack of Negligence

Plaintiff was injured when he allegedly fell from a defective rope ladder while working on a barge.  He filed a lawsuit against his employer, Weber Marine, alleging negligence under the Jones Act, unseaworthiness of the barge, and seeking maintenance and cure.  In the alternative, he sought damages under Section 905(b) of the LHWCA.  Weber Marine filed two Motions for Summary Judgment.  The first motion argued that plaintiff would be unable to support his claims for Jones Act negligence, unseaworthiness, or 905(b) vessel negligence at trial.  In support of the motion, Weber Marine asserted that the ladder was in good working order, the accident was unwitnessed, and that it did not own the barge in question.  In its second motion, Weber Marine argued the plaintiff was not a Jones Act seaman and was instead a maritime worker covered by the LHWCA.

 

The district court judge for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana granted both of Weber Marine’s motions.  In holding plaintiff was not a Jones Act seaman, the Court determined his claims for Jones Act negligence, unseaworthiness, and maintenance and cure were moot.  Furthermore, the Court recognized that while a maritime worker has a tort-based cause of action against his employer by virtue of Section 905(b), the plaintiff had failed to raise any facts supporting his claim for negligence.  The Court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims with prejudice and instructed him to pursue any claim he may have under the LHWCA before the U.S. Department of Labor.

 

Bourgeois v. Weber Marine