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  • Federal Judge Refuses to Enforce Release Deckhand Signed While Unrepresented by Counsel, Lacking Specialized Medical Advice, and Paid Only $860 for Serious Back Injury

    While deckhanding for Double J. Marine, LLC aboard its towboat, the M/V MISS KAYLYNN, Matthew Nuber seriously injured his back while pulling on a face wire.  On the day of the accident, Nuber only had the benefit of an emergency room physician’s opinion, without any diagnostic testing, such as an x-ray or an MRI, that he had only pulled a muscle.  One week later, Nuber returned to the ER where another physician released him to work full duty, still without any diagnostic testing, and without the opinion of a specialist, such as an orthopedic or neurosurgeon.

    A deckhand handling a facewire.

    A deckhand handling a face wire aboard a barge.

    Later the same day, deckhand Nuber met with the vessel owner’s claims adjuster at a gas station and signed a “Receipt, Release, and Hold Harmless Agreement.”  The adjuster read and explained the release to Nuber and Nuber signed the release, purportedly knowingly giving up all his claims against Double J for the shipboard accident.  In exchange for signing the release, Double J paid Nuber only $860.  Nuber returned to work for Double J the next day.

    About one month later, Nuber’s back pain returned.  Double J placed him on light duty, until Nuber could no longer continue to work.  Then, Double J finally sent Nuber to see a back specialist, an orthopedic surgeon, who promptly ordered an MRI.  The doctor diagnosed Nuber with herniated discs, recommended surgery, and opined the shipboard accident had caused the back injury.  Nuber then demanded Double J pay him maintenance and cure under the general maritime law.  Double J responded by filing this lawsuit, seeking a declaratory judgment that the release Nuber signed insulated it from Nuber’s claims.  Nuber then filed a Jones Act negligence, general maritime law unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure lawsuit against Double J in state court.

    In Double J. Marine, LLC v. Nuber, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173408 (E.D. La. Dec. 11, 2013), U.S. District Judge Martin L.C. Feldman of the Eastern District of Louisiana denied Double J’s motion for summary judgment, finding there were fact issues as to whether the release was enforceable.  Consistent with longstanding admiralty law, Judge Feldman discussed how the courts are charged with being protective of the rights of seamen:

    “Seamen are wards of admiralty law, whose rights federal courts are duty-bound to jealously protect. … In protecting their rights, the Court must be ‘particularly vigilant to guard against overreaching when a seaman purports to release his right to compensation for personal injuries.’ … At the same time, however, the Court must balance the utility of maintaining confidence in the finality of such settlements. … In carefully scrutinizing releases or settlement agreements involving seamen, the Court must ultimately determine whether the seaman had ‘an informed understanding of his rights and a full appreciation of the consequences’ of executing the release at the time he executed it.”

    Judge Feldman further wrote how the seaman’s employer bears the burden of proving the validity of a release, how the amount of money he or she is paid for the release is significant, as is the nature and extent of any medical and legal advice the seaman had available to him or her when signing the release:

    “The party claiming that the matter has been settled bears the burden of demonstrating that a seaman’s release of claims was ‘executed freely, without deception or coercion, and that it was made by the seaman with full understanding of his rights.’ …  Adequacy of consideration is one factor for the Court to consider in determining whether the seaman had an informed understanding of his rights. … However, the Court ‘lacks authority, especially where the seaman testifies to complete satisfaction, to void the agreement simply because the court thinks the seaman could have negotiated a better deal.’ … Another factor the Court considers in determining whether the seaman had an informed understanding of his rights is the nature of medical and legal advice available to him. … In this regard, a seaman ‘may have to take his chances’ that a properly diagnosed condition is ‘more serious and extensive than originally thought.’ … Other factors the Court considers include whether the parties negotiated at arm’s length and in good faith, and whether there is the appearance of fraud, deception, coercion, or overreaching.”

    Here, Judge Feldman had to review competing versions of the gas station release signing: a transcript of the “ceremony” versus an affidavit from Nuber.  He concluded the release could not be summarily enforced against Nuber.  The Court’s analysis:

    “Double J. contends that the record establishes that, at the time of releasing his rights, Nuber had an informed understanding of his rights and a full appreciation of the consequences. The Court disagrees. The record includes, on the one hand, a transcript of the meeting between Nuber and the adjuster in which Nuber indicated that he understood his rights and agreed to release them, and on the other, an affidavit executed by Nuber in which he swears he did not fully understand the ramifications of the release. That alone creates a genuine issue regarding whether Nuber executed the release freely and with a full understanding of his rights.”

    * * *

    “The record also reveals that Nuber has only completed the 10th grade in special education classes, that he only received $530 in [new] consideration for settlement, and that he was not represented by counsel when he executed the release. ‘Although a court may uphold a release even when the seaman is not represented by his own attorney, [the Fifth Circuit] has repeatedly emphasized the importance of counsel in determining whether a seaman fully understood his rights and the consequences of releasing those rights.’ … Neither did Nuber receive an independent medical opinion regarding his injuries before executing the release.”

    * * *

    “Double J. contends that the record clearly establishes that Nuber received adequate medical advice. The Court again disagrees. The record reveals that, before he signed the release, Nuber was treated twice at River Parishes Hospital where he was diagnosed with a pulled muscle and told to return to work. The emergency room physicians did not conduct any diagnostic testing, and did not refer Nuber to a specialist. When Nuber later sought more treatment, Dr. Nutik ordered an MRI, diagnosed Nuber with herniated discs, and recommended surgery. The record at least reveals a genuine issue regarding the adequacy of the medical advice Nuber initially received, if not a mutual mistake regarding the nature of Nuber’s injury.”

    * * *

    “Finally, although Double J. maintains that the parties negotiated at an arm’s length and in good faith, the record shows that Nuber signed the release at a gas station on the very same day he received treatment. Double J. has failed to meet its burden of establishing that Nuber signed the release freely, without deception or coercion, and with a full understanding of his rights.”

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    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, represents the families of captains, pilots, mates, deckhands, engineers, and cooks who work aboard towboats, barges, and other commercial vessels, and who are seriously injured or killed on the job.  If you have questions about your or your family’s legal rights under the Jones Act or the general maritime law, also known as “admiralty law,” feel free to contact us at 877-404-6529 or 412-281-4340.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.  Our e-mail address is info@golawllc.com.

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  • Employer Blocked in Attempt to Require Injured Seaman to Litigate Maintenance and Cure Claim in Federal Court

    In Parker Drilling Offshore USA LLC v. Lee, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100271 (W.D. La. June 6, 2013), a federal Magistrate Judge recommended that Parker Drilling’s Declaratory Judgment Act suit against its Jones Act seaman employee, Andrew Lee, be dismissed in deference to Lee’s later-filed Texas state court suit against Parker Drilling.  In the federal case, Parker Drilling sought “a judgment declaring (1) that Lee is not entitled to additional maintenance and cure since his back/leg complaints did not manifest in the ‘service of the vessel’ and predate his alleged accident, (2) that Lee is not entitled to maintenance and cure benefits based on the alleged willful concealment of a pre-existing condition and the applicability of McCorpen v. Central Gulf S.S. Corp., 396 F.2d 547 (5th Cir. 1968), and (3) that Parker acted in good faith toward Lee and its actions have not been ‘arbitrary, capricious or callous.'”

    Rig_50-B

    Parker Drilling’s Rig 50-B, upon which Jones Act seaman Andrew Lee allegedly sustained a lower back injury

    Parker Drilling filed its federal court suit less than three months after Lee’s alleged accident aboard Parker Drilling Rig 50B, which was then operating in Louisiana coastal waters.  Lee claimed he injured his lower back in the accident.  Lee filed his Texas state court suit, which sought damages for his injuries under the Jones Act (for negligence) and under the general maritime law (for unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure), just a few days after Parker Drilling filed its federal suit.

    The federal Magistrate Judge noted that while the federal court had jurisdiction to hear Parker Drilling’s case, it also had discretion under the Declaratory Judgment Act to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over Parker Drilling’s case.  Magistrate Judge Hanna found the questions in controversy between the parties could be better settled in the state court action and that the federal court action did not serve a purpose beyond duplicating the claims of the parties.  Specifically, the Magistrate Judge found:

        • Parker Drilling’s McCorpen defense to Lee’s maintenance and cure claim could be “fully litigated” in Lee’s Texas state court action and that it has long been held that “[w]here a maintenance and cure claim is joined with Jones Act negligence and unseaworthiness claims, the seaman should be allowed to try all of the claims together.”
        • Parker Drilling could have reasonably anticipated Lee’s state court suit given his accident and Parker’s suspension of maintenance and cure payments to him.
        • Even though Lee had not filed his Texas state court suit by the time Parker Drilling filed its federal action, Parker’s federal court suit came early — less than three months after Lee’s accident (“While the plaintiff is not required to wait indefinitely for the defendant employee to act, the Fifth Circuit has cautioned that using a declaratory judgment action to race to res judicata or to change forums is inconsistent with the purposes of the Declaratory Judgment Act.”).The fact Lee had not yet filed his state court suit by the time Parker Drilling filed its federal court suit was not dispositive (“It is a well-settled principle that the real or traditional plaintiff Lee (the party who was allegedly injured) is entitled to choose his forum, and that choice is ‘highly esteemed’…. Lee’s Texas suit was filed two days before he filed the Motion to Dismiss in this court. He chose the Texas state court forum, although he is a resident of Mississippi and worked for Parker in Louisiana. The [Texas state court] forum is nevertheless appropriate, since the record demonstrates that Parker is a Texas-based corporation and venue would be proper in Harris County. To allow this [federal] case to go forward would effectively deny Lee his choice of forum on the general maritime law claim for maintenance and cure.”).
        • While Parker Drilling argued the federal court in the Western District of Louisiana was more convenient for both parties and witnesses, the court found: “The Louisiana federal court forum may be a more convenient venue which would favor maintaining the action in this court. However, in considering and deferring to Lee’s choice of forum and the judicial economy of having all matters in controversy heard by one court, which can occur in the Texas forum, the undersigned finds that [this] factor weighs in favor of dismissal.”

    Magistrate Judge Hanna concluded:

    “…the interests of fairness and judicial efficiency are better served if the declaratory judgment action is dismissed. This finding is consistent and in accord with other cases addressing similar issues in dismissing an employer’s preemptive declaratory judgment action regarding maintenance and cure benefits in a maritime personal injury case ….. The interests of comity, judicial economy and deference to the traditional plaintiff’s choice of forum weigh in favor of allowing the Texas court to adjudicate the entirety of this dispute.”

    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly represents deckhands and other crewmen of towboats, barges, and other commercial vessels who are seriously injured on the job. If you have questions about your or your family’s legal rights under maritime, or admiralty, law, feel free to contact us at 877-404-6529, 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.

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