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  • WA State Supreme Court: Jones Act Seaman Can Recover Punitive Damages in Unseaworthiness Claim

    In Tabingo v. American Triumph LLC, No. 92913-1 (Wa. March 9, 2017) (en banc), the Washington (state) Supreme Court held, as a matter of law, the issue of the recoverability of punitive damages in a Jones Act seaman’s general maritime law unseaworthiness claim is governed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s analysis in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009).  The Washington Supreme Court, frontally disagreeing with the oft-cited U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s en banc decision in McBride v. Estis Well Service, LLC, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014), which held the issue of the recoverability of punitive damages in a GML unseaworthiness claim is controlled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), wrote:

    “It followed Miles‘s reasoning, noting that because the Jones Act limits recovery of punitive damages for actions brought under it, the same result must occur when a Jones Act claim and general maritime claim are joined in the same action. McBride, 768 F.3d at 388-89. However, as discussed above, this rationale misinterprets both Miles and its interaction with TownsendMiles is limited to tort remedies grounded in statute. Unseaworthiness is not such a remedy. Congress has not directly addressed the damages available for an unseaworthiness claim. Because of this, following Townsend, punitive damages for unseaworthiness have not been curtailed. Absent an indication that a general maritime cause of action has been removed from the general maritime rule, common law remedies are still available. Therefore, we apply Townsend‘s rationale and find that punitive damages are available for unseaworthiness claims.”

    The facts of the underlying serious injury, as alleged by the plaintiff, Allan Tabingo, as summarized by the Court, are as follows:

    “In February 2015, Tabingo was tasked with moving the fish below decks. He was on his knees near the hatch’s hinge, gathering the last remaining fish, when another deckhand started closing the hatch. Realizing how close Tabingo’ s hands were to the hatch, the deckhand attempted to correct his mistake. However, the hatch’s control handle was broken and the deckhand could not stop the hatch. The hydraulic hatch closed on Tabingo’ s hand, resulting in the amputation of two fingers. Tabingo alleges that American Seafoods knew about the broken handle for two years before the incident but had failed to repair it.”

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    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, focuses its practice on protecting the rights of commercial vessel crewmembers. We are experienced at bringing lawsuits for negligence under the Jones Act and, under the general maritime law, negligence, unseaworthiness, and maintenance and cure, on behalf of commercial vessel crewmembers–particularly including towboat and barge crewmembers–and their families, when a crewmember has been seriously injured or killed.

    If you have questions about this court opinion, or your or your family’s legal rights under admiralty and maritime law, contact us for a free consultation at 877-404-6529, 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com. We invite you to learn more about us on our website, www.golawllc.com.

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  • Crewman Seriously Injured From Fall on Icy Barge Deck Can Pursue Unseaworthiness Claim

    In Seemann v. Coastal Environmental Group, Inc., 2016 WL 7015728 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 29, 2016), Johnny Seemann, a crewman aboard a self-propelled barge named the “Army I,” claimed he hurt his back and shoulder when he slipped and fell on a patch of ice and/or snow on the deck of the barge.  Among other claims, Seemann alleged the company which owned the barge but had chartered it out was nevertheless liable for the conditions aboard the barge which caused his injuries.  Seemann claimed the deck was not properly de-iced, lacked a non-skid surface, and his requests for salt or de-icing materials had gone unfulfilled.

    Icy barge decks like this can be an "unseaworthy" condition under the general maritime law, entitling a Jones Act seaman to recover for his or her injuries.

    An icy barge deck like this can be an “unseaworthy” condition under the general maritime law, entitling a crewmember to recover significant money damages for his or her injuries.

    The Court denied the barge owner’s motion to dismiss Seemann’s unseaworthiness claim, writing:

    “The Second Circuit [Court of Appeals] has held that the presence of ice on a ship’s deck may present a condition of unseaworthiness. In Oxley v. City of N.Y., 923 F.2d 22 (2d Cir. 1991), the court held that a district court’s granting of summary judgment for a defendant owner was improper where a third party had slipped on ice that had accumulated on the deck and fell on the plaintiff, causing injuries to the plaintiff. Id. at 24–26. The court stated: ‘It seems to us that [the plaintiff’s] claim of unseaworthiness also must be resolved by a jury. To prevail on this claim, [the plaintiff] need only prove that the [vessel] was insufficiently or defectively equipped, and that his injuries resulted from the unseaworthy condition of the vessel.’ Id. at 26 (citing Waldron v. Moore–McCormack Lines, Inc., 386 U.S. 724, 726, 87 S.Ct. 1410, 1412, 18 L.Ed.2d 482 (1967); Poignant v. United States, 225 F.2d 595, 596 (2d Cir. 1955)), The Oxley court specifically referred to evidence in the record that showed that the vessel was not adequately furnished with sand and that the deck heating system was inadequate. Id.”

    The Court cited other decisions holding that ice or a slippery substance on deck may render a vessel unseaworthy, including conditions such as wet and melted sugar; steps which are painted and maintained so as to be excessively slippery, especially when wet; where design of the vessel may have contributed to the accumulation of ice on deck; and degreaser solvent which is left on deck and the area not cordoned-off nor warning signs posted.

    The Court noted the law in this realm is essentially this: “a seaman is not absolutely entitled to a deck that is not slippery. He is absolutely entitled to a deck that is not unreasonably slippery.”

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    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly brings personal injury lawsuits for negligence under the Jones Act and, under the general maritime law, for negligence, unseaworthiness, and maintenance and cure, on behalf of commercial vessel crewmembers–particularly including towboat crewmembers–and their families.  If you have questions about this court opinion, or your or your family’s legal rights under admiralty and maritime law, contact us for a free consultation at 877-404-6529, 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.

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  • Court Finds Harbor Towboat Deckhand Work May Well be a Two-Man Job

    In Keeney v. Ingram Barge Company, 2016 WL 1660398 (M.D. Tenn. Apr. 27, 2016), a federal district judge in Nashville denied Ingram Barge Company’s motion to dismiss the Jones Act negligence and general maritime law unseaworthiness claims in the lawsuit brought by Chase Keeney, an experienced deckhand aboard its harbor towboat, the M/V WILLARD HAMMOND.  Keeney claimed he had seriously injured his back, and had to undergo back surgery, because he was forced to work alone while building tow, specifically carrying ratchets and jerking wires.

    Keeney worked the 12-hour day shift on Ingram’s harbor boat.  He conceded there was nothing wrong with the barge on which he was working, the towboat itself, or any of the wires or ratchets with which he was required to work.  Rather, Keeney claimed Ingram was at fault because he was forced to perform the heavy manual labor of a deckhand unassisted, because the other deckhand on his watch often would not help him, the company knew this, but did nothing about it.

    A 35-foot barge wire similar to what Ingram deckhand Chase Keeney was required to carry and "jerk" singlehandedly.

    A 35-foot, 100-120 pound, barge wire similar to what deckhand Chase Keeney was required to carry and “jerk” single-handedly.

    Keeney’s claims were supported by an expert, Donald J. Green, who opined “the cause of this accident was negligence on the part of the defendants, Ingram Barge Company, for failure to provide Mr. Chase Keeney a safe workplace free from hazards. Reportedly, Mr. Keeney was required to perform repetitive heavy lifting and jerking ratchets to take out slack in ‘laying a wire’ without assistance. These are functions that are typically performed by two persons working together when making tow or securing barges in a tow. Mr. Keeney repeatedly handled heavy rigging wires and ratchets without sufficient assistance. Had another deckhand been available to help Mr. Keeney it is likely that he, Mr. Keeney, would not have had to repetitively strain laying wires making up tows, and it is more likely than not that this incident could have been avoided.”  Green added, “Ingram Barge Company failed to provide proper supervision or instruction to Mr. Keeney regarding safe procedures for transferring rigging wires from barges to tow boats and other barges” and “[r]equiring or allowing Mr. Keeney to work alone deploying or laying wires without assistance more than likely caused his injuries.”

    Keeney testified at his deposition that “I was doing the job of two men by myself a lot of the times where it takes two people to pull up a wire and strap it in, I was doing it all by myself.”

    The Court found that while the wire and ratchet work Keeney was performing can be done by one man, “it does appear that, if not mandated, it was at least preferable to have two men laying wire.” The Court also found it significant that Keeney had testified at deposition that before his accident he had reported to the captain of his towboat the fact his fellow deckhand, whom Ingram ultimately terminated due to his work habits, was routinely not helping him.

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    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly brings personal injury lawsuits for negligence under the Jones Act and, under the general maritime law, for negligence, unseaworthiness, and maintenance and cure, on behalf of commercial vessel crewmembers and their families.  If you have questions about this court opinion, or your or your family’s legal rights under admiralty and maritime law, contact us for a free consultation at 877-404-6529, 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.  While we practice primarily in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, we will also consider taking cases anywhere in the U.S.

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  • Texas Court Upholds $8.5 Million Verdict for Injured Offshore Rig Mechanic, Holds Trial Judge Was Correct to Keep Out of Trial Unfair Surveillance Video

    In Diamond Offshore Servs. Ltd. v. Williams, 2015 WL 4480577 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st. Dist.] July 21, 2015), Willie David Williams sued Diamond Offshore for negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness under the general maritime law after he seriously injured his back repairing equipment aboard an offshore oil rig owned and operated by Diamond Offshore.  The trial judge entered judgment on the jury’s verdict, after credits and offsets had been applied, delivering to Williams approximately $8.5 million in compensatory damages and $235,381 in pre- and post-judgment interest.  Diamond Offshore appealed the trial court’s judgment, claiming the trial judge made numerous legal errors, including preventing Diamond Offshore from showing the jury surveillance video its investigator had taken of Williams working outside.

    Diamond Offshore's semi-submersible rig, the OCEAN LEXINGTON, upon which Willie David Williams was injured.

    Diamond Offshore’s semi-submersible rig, the OCEAN LEXINGTON, upon which Willie David Williams was injured.

    The surveillance video was eighty-minutes long and showed Williams performing various outdoor tasks, such as using an excavator to haul debris and working on a vehicle, over the course of three days, years after the accident and after Williams’ back surgeries.  The trial judge ruled the video could not be used as substantive evidence, but only for impeachment purposes, in other words, to try to show Williams was lying if he denied doing any of the things the video showed him doing.  Williams’ lawyers argued the video should be excluded from the trial under evidence rule 403 because the prejudicial effect of what they termed the “heavily edited” video substantially outweighed any probative value.

    The appeals court found significant the fact the “video only reflects Williams’s outside activities and does not reflect what he did when he was not outside or whether he was in pain as a result of his activities.”  Also, in his trial testimony, Williams admitted he could perform the activities depicted in the surveillance video, although he added he could only engage in these activities “for short periods of time before he felt pain and that he would be in pain later after engaging in these activities.”

    In affirming the trial judge’s decision to not allow the jury to see the surveillance video, the appeals court discussed how a “trial court’s evidentiary rulings are committed to the court’s ‘sound discretion,’ and we must uphold the court’s ruling if there is any basis for doing so.”  While in the trial transcript, the trial judge did not articulate a reason for its rulings, instead merely saying during a pre-trial hearing that Diamond Offshore could “keep [the surveillance video] in your reserve bank for impeachment” and that, if Williams “opens the door, then we’ll take a look at it.”  Similarly, when Diamond Offshore offered the surveillance video after one of Williams’ medical experts testified, the court stated, “Ruling stands the same,” and when Diamond Offshore offered the video after cross-examination of Williams, the trial court stated, “No, not admitting,” without providing a reason.

    The appellate court found that “[n]o Texas case squarely addresses the issue present here—the admissibility of post-accident surveillance videotapes as either substantive or impeachment evidence—and cases from other jurisdictions have emphasized the trial court’s discretion in ruling on the admissibility of such evidence, upholding trial courts’ rulings admitting post-accident surveillance videos and upholding rulings excluding this evidence.  In the absence of authority binding on this Court, we cannot conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding the post-accident surveillance video offered by Diamond Offshore. The trial court could have reasonably determined that the proffered video, which contained clips from three different days of surveillance edited together into one continuous hour-long video and depicted Williams performing activities that he admitted that he could do, albeit with pain later, created an impression that Williams could engage in physical activity for long periods of time without needing rest and without apparent pain and thus that the prejudicial effect of the video outweighed the video’s probative value. …  We therefore hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the surveillance video proffered by Diamond Offshore.”

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    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly brings lawsuits for negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure under the general maritime law on behalf of commercial vessel crewmembers, both men and women, and we regularly face situations where the defendant, usually our client’s employer, has hired an investigator to secretly shoot surveillance video of our client.  This decision highlights how those videos can often be unfair in what they don’t show about how an accident has injured our client.  If you have questions about this court opinion, or your or your family’s legal rights under admiralty and maritime law, contact us for a free consultation at 877-404-6529, 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.  We practice primarily in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, but also all over the inland waterways.

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  • Federal Appeals Court Affirms Unseaworthiness Findings and $1.2 Million Pain & Suffering Damages to 52-Year-Old Tug Crewman

    I posted in Towboatlaw on this case in January 2013, four days after U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon entered her decision in Harrington v. Atlantic Sounding Co., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2988 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 7, 2013), finding Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. and Weeks Marine, Inc. negligent under the Jones Act and the tug CANDACE unseaworthy under the general maritime law.   She found no contributory negligence and awarded Frederick J. Harrington Jr., 52 at the time of the accident, $478,948 in past lost wages and loss of future earning capacity, $500,000 for past pain and suffering, and $700,000 for future pain and suffering.  The defendants appealed to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

    Three days ago, in Marasa v. Atlantic Sounding Co., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 1073 (2d Cir. Jan. 21, 2014) (unpub.), this appeals court largely affirmed the judgment, which, with prejudgment interest, totaled $1,727,471.16.  The Second Circuit only reduced the judgment by $16,308, the sum which the defendants previously paid pursuant to a Claim Arbitration Agreement.

    Of particular interest in the appeals court’s decision is its approval of the trial court’s findings in favor of the injured crewman on his claim for general maritime law unseaworthiness, and the trial judge’s award of $1.2 million for past and future pain and suffering damages.

    As to unseaworthiness, the Second Circuit wrote how its precedent has long held that a vessel can be unseaworthy if its crew is inadequately trained: “Our precedent recognizes that ‘a vessel being operated by an incompetent captain or crew is considered unseaworthy,'” citing Complaint of Messina, 574 F.3d 119, 127 (2d Cir. 2009), Matter of Guglielmo, 897 F.2d 58, 61 (2d Cir. 1990), Tug Ocean Prince, Inc. v. United States, 584 F.2d 1151, 1155 (2d Cir. 1978), and 1B Benedict on Admiralty § 24 (2004) (recognizing that “an unseaworthy condition . . . on an otherwise fit vessel” can be created by “incompetent training or experience” or “unsafe method of work”).

    In affirming Judge Gershon’s assessment of $500,000 in past and $700,000 in future pain and suffering damages, the Second Circuit found, first, that even though the injured crewman, Frederick J. Harrington Jr., died while the appeal was pending (Madeline Marasa is the personal representative of Harrington, in whose name the appeal was defended), the defendants were unentitled to a reduction in his estate’s future pain and suffering damages award.  Second, the appeals court discussed how the trial court found “Harrington’s injury resulted in extraordinary pain and suffering, requiring multiple spinal surgeries and daily medication.”  Judge Gershon had described in detail Harrington’s two back surgeries and the many activities he could no longer perform, given his injuries.  Accordingly, the Second Circuit did not find the $1.2 million pain and suffering damages award excessive, and affirmed.

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    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, represents crewmen of towboats, tugs, barges, and other commercial vessels, as well as passengers aboard cruise and excursion boats and ships.  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 Fred Goldsmith or Rich Ogrodowski toll-free 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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