Louisiana law applies over maritime law where accident occurred on continental shelf off coast of Louisiana

On March 10, 2017 the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana held that Louisiana substantive law, not maritime law, applied in a dispute governed by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”).  The plaintiff claimed that he was injured while aboard a fixed SPAR oil and gas production platform known as Devil’s Tower, which is located on the continental shelf off the coast of Louisiana.  Devil’s Tower has no means of propulsion and is connected to the seabed by a mooring system consisting of chains, cables, and piles or caissons embedded into the ocean floor.  Finding that Louisiana was the adjacent state of the location where the incident occurred and the incident took place on a situs covered by OCSLA, Louisiana state substantive law rather than maritime law governed plaintiff’s lawsuit.

 

Spisak v. Apache Corporation, et al.

BENEFITS REVIEW BOARD HOLDS STATE WORKERS’ COMPENSATION SETTLEMENT TOLLS STATUTORY BAR

In the 1970s, Claimant worked for a LHWCA-covered employer as a welder. Subsequently, he worked for non-covered employers until he retired voluntarily. During the course of his employment with the Longshore employer, Claimant was exposed to asbestos, and, in 2009, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. In August 2010, Claimant filed a claim for benefits under Connecticut state workers’ compensation law. On December 5, 2012, the state workers’ compensation commissioner approved settlement, and Claimant received payment on approximately the same day. In October 2013, Claimant filed a claim for benefits under the LHWCA. Employer filed a motion for summary decision, asserting that the claim was not filed timely. The administrative law judge denied the motion and awarded benefits to Claimant; Employer appealed to the Benefits Review Board.

 

The Board, in reviewing Section 13(b)(2), noted that Claimant would be barred from filing a LHWCA claim if he failed to file either within two years of becoming aware of the relationship between his illness and his employment, or within one year of the last payment of compensation. As to the latter factor, the Board looked to the definition of “compensation” under Section 2(12). In interpreting “compensation” under that provision, the Board held that a settlement for workers’ compensation benefits under a state statutory scheme was a “payment of compensation” sufficient to toll the statute of limitations under Section 13(b)(2). Thus, Claimant’s October 2013 claim was timely filed within one year of his state-approved settlement in December 2012.

 

Robinson v. Electric Boat Corp.

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

Seaman’s Widow’s Claim for Punitive Damages Denied

Recently, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana further shored up the clearly delineated avenues for recovery available to plaintiffs involved in Jones Act and personal injury suits arising under general maritime law.  In Wade v. Clemco Industries Inc., et al, No. 16502 (E.D. La. Feb. 2, 2017), the court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, Inc., and denied the widow of a Jones Act seaman the recovery of punitive damages from non-employer third-parties.

 

Court documents show that the decedent, Garland Wade, worked as a sandblaster and paint sprayer on vessels owned by Coating Specialists, Inc., and performed work on permanent fixed platforms owned and/or operated by Chevron USA both in Louisiana and Federal waters.  Several years after leaving his employment as a sandblaster, the decedent died of connective tissue disease. In the case at bar, it was alleged that the decedent was not provided with a protective hood, not given instructions for the proper use of the hood he may have been given, and that he was not provided with a safe work place.

 

Plaintiff, Rose Wade, initially filed suit on grounds that her husband’s death was caused by products manufactured, marketed, designed, sold, and/or distributed by the defendants, and which contained asbestos which she alleged directly caused or aggravated her husband’s illness and death.  As a result of the defendant’s respective actions and/or inactions, Plaintiff sought $5,000,000.00 in damages for the wrongful death of her husband.

 

Defendant quickly filed motions for partial summary judgment seeking the dismissal of Plaintiff’s claims for non-pecuniary losses, under the well-established rule that Jones Act seamen and their survivors are not entitled to recover non-pecuniary damages from a non-employer third parties. (Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, Inc., 391 F.3d 660, 668 (5th Cir. 2004).)  In conjunction with their efforts, Defendants noted that the Plaintiff in the instant matter had already filed a state court suit in which the decedent had been adjudged to have been a Jones Act seaman, and therefore there could be little question that Scarborough would apply to the claims at issue before the Eastern District.  Defendants also argued that the Supreme Court’s holding in Townsend, which had previously resulted in an award of punitive damages for Employer’s arbitrary withholding of maintenance and cure, did not apply, because the Wade matter did not involve the issues of maintenance and cure.

 

In response, Plaintiff averred that her claims against the non-employer third-parties did not arise under the Jones Act or general maritime law; however, the Court disagreed with this assertion.  In so doing, the Honorable Judge Eldon Fallon found this case to be analogous to McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S. Ct. 2310 (2015), and noted that in that matter, as in the instant case, Plaintiff elected to bring her claim under general maritime law, and thus the parties were to be bound by the limitations on damages previously established under that body of law.  In granting the defendants’ motions in Wade, the court further solidified the foundation laid by McBride and its progeny, in wrongful death cases brought under general maritime law, which continue to limit a survivor’s recovery from employers and non-employers to pecuniary losses in cases where the Jones Act is implicated.