CALL (24/7): 412-281-4340
TOLL FREE: 877-404-6529

Towboatlaw – Towboat & Barge Lawyer, Admiralty & Maritime Law on the Rivers

  • In Vessel Owner’s Limitation of Liability Act Case in Federal Court, Injured Claimant Need Not Stipulate to Owner’s Right to Seek Exoneration

    In two unrelated Vessel Owner’s Limitation of Liability Act (46 U.S.C. § 30501, et. seq.) cases decided the same day, a Wheeling, West Virginia-based federal judge ruled in Complaint of: Bellaire Harbor Service, LLC, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117991 (N.D. W. Va. Aug. 20, 2013) and In re Campbell Transportation Co., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117992 (N.D. W. Va. Aug. 20, 2013), that the vessel owners were seeking more than the general maritime law entitled them to in attempting to require the injured claimants–both Jones Act seamen–to stipulate, in order to resume their West Virginia state court lawsuits, that the vessel owners were entitled to litigate the issue of exoneration from liability, in addition to the issue of limitation of liability, in federal court.  The Court wrote:

    “If courts required an exoneration stipulation prior to lifting the stay on a case, courts would be ‘enlarg[ing] shipowners’ rights under the Limitation Act and abridg[ing] claimants’ rights under the savings to suitor clause’….This Court agrees with the Fifth Circuit’s explanation and analysis of the issue. Thus, again this Court finds that the claimants need not stipulate to the plaintiffs’ right to litigate the exoneration issue in this Court. The claimants’ stipulation to the plaintiffs’ right to litigate all issues related to the limitation of liability, along with the claimants’ other stipulations, is sufficient for this Court to lift the injunction on the state court action and grant the motion to stay this action.”

    The Court also held in the cases:

    1. The husband and wife claimants’ stipulation that the claims of the injured husband will have irrevocable priority over the claims for damages of the wife transformed the case into the functional  equivalent of a single claimant case, protecting the vessel owner while allowing the claimants to pursue their state court action;
    2. The claimants are not required to agree to limit damages to the value of the vessel and its attending freight, nor are they required to stipulate to the precise amount of the limitation fund, or rather the precise amount of the vessel owners’ interest in the vessel and freight; and
    3. It was improper to determine [at this early stage] whether the claimants’ maintenance and cure claim was subject to the Vessel Owners’ Limitation of Liability Act.

    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, represents the towboat deckhand claimants in the above cases and we regularly represent deckhands and other crewmen of towboats, barges, and other commercial vessels who are seriously injured or killed 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 or 412-281-4340.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.  Our e-mail address is info@golawllc.com.

    Share on:
  • 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.

    Share on:
  • Lead Mate Aboard Towboat Secures $621K Judgment for Shoulder Injury in Ratchet Accident

    Deckhands working with ratchet

    Deckhands working with a ratchet on the line deck of a jumbo hopper barge

    Quincy Allen was employed by American River Transportation Co. (“ARTCO”) as lead mate aboard the ARTCO towboat, the M/V SCARLETT GEM, a fleet boat on the lower Mississippi River. While assisting in the removal of a barge from the tow of an AEP River Operations, LLC towboat near ARTCO’s Kenner Bend Fleet, Allen sustained a serious shoulder injury. The AEP deckhand assisting Allen kicked loose the coupling on the barge by releasing the pelican hook on a ratchet while the line was under strain. Unbeknownst to the two workers, the wire was kinked and, when it was released, it recoiled and caught Allen’s arm, injuring his shoulder. Allen testified he had specifically instructed the AEP deckhand to warn him before kicking loose the pelican hook, should that become necessary, but, the Court found, the AEP deckhand failed to do so.

    Allen’s orthopedic surgeon performed a right shoulder bursectomy, subacromial decompression, distal clavicle resection, and labral debridement. After an attempt to return to work, Allen was required to undergo another surgery to repair a degenerative tear of the proximal biceps with an intact superior labral complex and some fraying of the biceps tendon. The treating surgeon opined that Allen continued to suffer from residual stiffness and pain in his right shoulder and that Allen would be unable to return to heavy-duty work aboard a towboat, that he was permanently restricted to light duty work. Allen settled his claims against his employer, ARTCO, and tried to resume work for fear if he did not he would lose his job, but was physically unable to do so. He then brought suit against AEP.

    Following a nonjury trial, the New Orleans-based federal judge found AEP liable in negligence under the general maritime law due to the actions of its deckhand, Allen not liable to any extent, and that Allen was entitled to pain and suffering damages of $150,000, medical damages of $45,048, and past and future lost earnings damages of $426,866. The case is reported at Allen v. AEP River Operations, LLC, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89797 (E.D. La. June 25, 2013).

    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.

    Share on:
  • Seaman’s Employer Which Willfully Denied Maintenance & Cure Ordered to Pay Attorney’s Fees at $400/hour, $150/hour for Paralegal Work

    A seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure for any injury or illness that occurs, manifests, or becomes aggravated while he or she is in service of his or her ship.  “Maintenance” refers to reasonable and necessary food and lodging expenses.  “Cure” is the seaman’s right to reasonable and necessary medical care until the seaman has reached “maximum medical improvement,” defined as the point at which the condition is permanent or cannot be improved with further medical treatment.

    As the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals observed last July in Messier v. Bouchard Transportation, “[i]t does not matter whether he is injured because of his own negligence….It does not matter whether the injury or illness was related to the seaman’s employment…It does not even matter, absent active concealment, if the illness or injury is merely an aggravation or recurrence of a preexisting condition…This well-established rule does not permit an exception for asymptomatic diseases—so long as the illness was present during the seaman’s service, he is entitled to maintenance and cure.”

    Recently, in Hicks v. Vane Line Bunkering, Inc., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55043 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 15, 2013), the jury found against Ciro “Charles” Hicks, a mate on Vane Line’s tugboat, on his Jones Act negligence and general maritime law unseaworthiness claims.  But, it found Vane Line liable as to his maintenance and cure claims, and that this employer had acted willfully in underpaying and failing to pay him maintenance and cure.  So, the jury assessed damages as follows: underpaid maintenance – $77,000, future maintenance – $16,000, future cure – $97,000, past pain and suffering – $132,000, and $123,000 in punitive damages.

    Given the willfulness finding, the Court also ordered Vane Line to pay Hicks’ attorney’s fees and expenses, including paralegal time.  It valued Hick’s highly-experienced admiralty attorney’s services at $400/hour and the paralegal’s time at $150/hour, together with case expenses (depositions, copies, filing fees, etc.) totaling $112,083.77.

    Thus, if you are a seaman and may not ultimately have a winning Jones Act negligence or general maritime law unseaworthiness case, you may still have a valuable general maritime law maintenance and cure claim, particularly where your employer has acted callously or willfully in failing to pay or underpaying you maintenance and/or cure.

    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly brings maintenance and cure claims on behalf of deckhands and other crewmen of towboats and barges.   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.

    Share on:
  • California Federal Court: “Primary Duty Rule” No Bar to Third Mate’s Personal Injury Claims

    Employers of Jones Act seamen sometimes try to defeat the seaman’s personal injury or death case by invoking the “Primary Duty Rule,” sometimes also known as the Walker-Reinhart Doctrine, after the two cases which first announced the Rule, Walker v. Lykes Bros., 193 F.2d 772 (2d Cir. 1952), and Reinhart v. United States, 457 F.2d 151 (9th Cir. 1972).

    Under the Primary Duty Rule, a seaman may not recover from his employer for injuries caused by his own failure to perform a duty imposed on him by his employment.  And, if a seaman is found to have violated the Rule, his Jones Act negligence and general maritime law unseaworthiness claims can be completely barred.  But, the Rule has three limitations: First, the seaman must have consciously assumed the duty as a term of employment.  Second, the dangerous condition which injured the seaman must have been created by the seaman or could have been controlled or eliminated solely by the seaman in the proper exercise of his or her employment duties.  Finally, the seaman must have knowingly violated a duty consciously assumed as a condition of employment.

    By implication, the Rule has three limitations.  First, it will not bar a claim of injury arising from the breach of a duty the plaintiff did not consciously assume as a term of his employment.  Second, it does not apply where a seaman is injured by a dangerous condition he or she did not create and, in the proper exercise of his or her employment duties, could not have controlled or eliminated.  Third, the rule applies only to a knowing violation of a duty consciously assumed as a term of employment.

    In Barry v. United States, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48915 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 1, 2013), the plaintiff, Stephen Barry, the vessel’s Third Mate, was overseeing a mooring operation at Newport News, Virginia.  A stopper line broke.  This caused the mooring line to strike and injure Barry’s left leg.  Barry sued for negligence under the Jones Act and, under the general maritime law, for unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure.  The Court found the stopper line provided by the defendant “was of insufficient tensile strength to perform the job for which it was intended.”

    The Court thus found the defendant liable for Barry’s injury under his Jones Act claim.  It held the defendant had a duty to provide Barry with a safe working environment, including adequate equipment to perform his duties, but breached this duty when it supplied Barry with “a stopper too weak to perform the mooring operation in a manner which seamen would customarily expect to be safe.  During a mooring operation, a seaman normally would expect a stopper to withstand stress equivalent to one-half of a mooring line’s capacity, in this case 30 tons. The stopper on the Vessel, however, could take only 20 tons before breaking. Defendant and its agents had notice of this dangerous condition because they knew, or should have known, the customary equipment strength requirements. Moreover, Defendant and its agents procured the 1″ stopper nylon line and thus knew, or should have known, of its inadequate strength. Because Defendant negligently provided a stopper that could endure only 20 tons of stress, and not the 30 tons that a reasonable seaman would expect, the stopper failed during the mooring operation when subjected to no more than 24 tons of tension. This failure caused the mooring line to strike and injure Plaintiff.”

    Since the Court found the defendant failed to prove Barry acted unreasonably for a seaman during the mooring operation, it concluded he was not subject to a contributory negligence finding nor did he violate the Primary Duty Rule as to his Jones Act negligence claim.

    Finally, the Court found Barry had proved his general maritime law unseaworthiness claim by showing the stopper was not reasonably fit for its intended use.  As to this claim as well, the Court held the defendant failed to prove Barry acted unreasonably for a seaman during the mooring operation and therefore he was “not subject to contributory fault or the primary duty rule….”

    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly represents crewmen of towboats, barges, and other commercial vessels.   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.

    Share on: