Published: April 29, 2016
By: Frederick B. Goldsmith
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.
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.
* * *
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
Published: April 24, 2015
By: Frederick B. Goldsmith
Ciro Charles Hicks was serving as a deckhand on the Tug PATRIOT, operated by Vane Line Bunkering, Inc., when he injured his shoulder while handling heavy towing gear. About two months later, following a diagnosis of a possible rotator cuff tear, and failure of a cortisone injection to relieve his pain, Hicks underwent surgery on his shoulder. Afterwards, he underwent several months of physical therapy, yet continued to have significant pain in his shoulder. Five months after the surgery, Hicks told his treating physician he still had limited range of motion of his arm.
Vane Line put Hicks under surveillance. The investigator obtained video of Hicks planting a small tree and playing with his grandson. In response to Hicks’ doctor’s request for Vane Line to approve an additional MRI scan, Vane Line showed the doctor the surveillance video and a document purporting to show that Hicks’ job as a deckhand only required light lifting–something Vane Line later conceded was inaccurate. Based on the video and the incorrect work requirements document, this physician opined Hicks was fit to return to work. Vane Line then terminated Hicks’ maintenance and cure payments.
Hicks then saw a second doctor, who diagnosed a recurrent rotator cuff tear. The second doctor recommended another surgery followed by six months of physical therapy to repair the additional shoulder damage. Because of the maintenance rate Vane Line had been paying him before it cut off maintenance, $15 per day, versus his actual food and lodging costs of $69.67 per day, Hicks felt compelled to return to work, even though the second physician had told him his shoulder was still injured. Severe financial difficulties caused Hicks to miss some of his physical therapy appointments, his house was foreclosed upon, and he was unable to pay for health insurance.
Hicks then sued Vane Line in federal court. As reported previously on this blog, the jury found in favor of his employer on Hicks’ Jones Act negligence and general maritime law unseaworthiness claims, but for Hicks on his general maritime law maintenance and cure claim. The jury found Vane Line breached its general maritime law maintenance obligation to Hicks by paying him an insufficient daily maintenance rate and for prematurely cutting-off maintenance. The jury verdict included $77,000 in compensatory damages for past maintenance and cure, $16,000 in future maintenance, $97,000 in future cure, and $132,000 to compensate for past pain and suffering. The jury also found the employer’s failure to pay maintenance and cure unreasonable and willful and included in its verdict an additional $123,000 in punitive damages. Based on the jury’s finding of willfulness, the district court, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d), granted Hicks an additional $112,083.77 in attorney’s fees.
Recently, in Hicks v. Tug PATRIOT, 2015 WL 1740383 (2d Cir. Apr. 17, 2015), the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment in its entirety. It found the jury’s findings as to the culpability of Vane Line’s conduct and the damages caused Hicks were entitled to deference, and that Hicks was also entitled, due to Vane Line’s willful conduct, to both attorney’s fees and punitive damages. The appeals court found support for its decision in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404, 129 S.Ct. 2561, 174 L.Ed.2d 382 (2009), in which the Court ruled that punitive damages are available to a seaman under the general maritime law for an employer’s willful failure to pay maintenance and cure.
* * *
Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly brings claims 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, such as deckhands, mates, cooks, engineers, pilots, and captains. 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 (toll-free), 412-281-4340, or email@example.com. Our website is www.golawllc.com. We practice primarily in PA, WV, and OH, but also all over the inland waterways.
Published: June 9, 2014
By: Frederick B. Goldsmith
In Stermer v. Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., 2014 WL 25153872014 (La. App. 3d Cir. June 4, 2014), American River Transportation Company (ARTCO) employed Adrienne Stermer as a cook on its towboat. About two weeks into her hitch, while the towboat was facing up to its tow and Stermer was in the galley, kneeling before an open refrigerator, cleaning a steak sauce tray, the vessel’s movements caused her to lose her balance and fall forward. Apparently no one warned her to “watch the bump.” Stermer tried to steady herself by grabbing a shelf inside the refrigerator, but her fingers went through the rack and her right hand was pushed backward. Her knees hit the floor. She tried to use her left hand to brace herself for the fall, but instead rolled onto her right ankle. Nevertheless, she got herself up, brushed herself off, and returned to work. While she had pain and swelling in her hands and right ankle, she just took Advil. Stermer testified she was afraid to report her accident for fear of being fired. But, five days later, when her hands and right ankle continued to swell and she could no longer tie her shoes, Stermer reported her injuries to the boat’s engineer, who informed the pilot. Stermer then completed an ARTCO accident report.
Three days later, ARTCO put Stermer ashore in Paducah, Kentucky, and to a hospital there. The history of her injuries that Stermer gave to medical personnel at Western Baptist Hospital was consistent with what she had told the engineer and what she had written in her accident report. The ER physician diagnosed bilateral hand and wrist sprains and a right ankle sprain, and prescribed antiinflammatories, pain medication, and an air cast for Stermer’s right ankle. She then returned to her towboat, tried to work, but was relieved, and sent home to Louisiana.
Later, the vessel’s captain and a deckhand testified they were in the galley when Stermer claimed to have been hurt, that there were two bumps during the facing-up, but they did not see her fall into the refrigerator. Just five days after Stermer reported her accident, ARTCO sent Stermer a letter asserting her “recent complaints did not manifest itself [sic] in the service of the vessel” and that it would not pay her maintenance and cure. Three days later, ARTCO sent Stermer another letter, this time to fire her. It wrote her “willful disregard for the truth … demonstrated an unacceptable standard of conduct.”
A hand surgery specialist in Louisiana continued to treat Stermer, at first conservatively, but then with surgery, to repair a scapholunate dissociation. This is a tear in the ligament between the scaphoid and lunate bones in the wrist. This surgeon found Stermer’s injury was not preexisting. ARTCO obtained an “IME,” or “independent medical opinion,” from an orthopedic surgeon who opined the injury was present before the accident aboard the towboat. ARTCO, despite being kept continuously apprised of Stermer’s medical course, and despite Stermer’s demands for maintenance and cure, including a request to pay for her surgery, refused to pay maintenance and cure for two and a half years. It delayed approving the surgery for 27 months, even though its IME physician agreed Stermer needed the surgery.
Stermer brought claims in state court against ARTCO for negligence under the Jones Act and, under the general maritime law, for unseaworthiness, maintenance and cure, and retaliatory discharge. At trial, the judge awarded Stermer on her Jones Act negligence claim nearly $100,000 for lost employee benefits, $337,000 in lost wages, and $200,000 for pain and suffering. The court also found ARTCO’s refusal to pay Stermer maintenance and cure for two and a half years “arbitrary and capricious” and assessed an additional $300,000 in punitive damages and $150,000 in attorney’s fees. The court found she had not proved her unseaworthiness and retaliatory discharge claims.
ARTCO appealed only the punitive damages and attorney’s fee aspects of the trial court’s judgment. The Louisiana appellate court described the seaman’s maintenance and cure claim under the general maritime law, the deferential standard under which it is to be judged, and the consequences maritime employers face when they callously disregard their maintenance and cure obligation.
The appeals court in its opinion wrote how maintenance and cure “is an ancient duty imposed upon the owner of a ship to provide food, lodging and necessary medical services to seamen who become ill or injured during service to the ship” and how “[r]ecovery is not dependent upon negligence of the vessel or the owner and the burden of proof in seeking maintenance and cure is relatively light.” To win a maintenance and cure claim, “a seaman need only prove that the injury arose during his service of the vessel” and the seaman does not even have to prove his or her duties caused the injury.
Continuing, the appeals court noted that while an employer is entitled to investigate a seaman’s claim for maintenance and cure, to rely on recognized defenses to deny benefits when appropriate, and to require corroboration of the claim, the employer cannot be “lax” in its investigation. Further, the court wrote, “when an employer’s investigation of a seaman’s claim reveals that doubts or ambiguities exist as to whether the seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure, they are resolved in favor of the seaman.” “If an employer fails to properly investigate a claim for maintenance and cure or unreasonably rejects a claim after investigating the claim, the employer may be liable for compensatory damages that are a consequence of the failure to pay maintenance and cure. … The employer may also be liable for punitive damages and attorney fees if it is ‘more egregiously at fault’ in denying a proper claim for maintenance and cure. … This higher degree of fault has been explained as ‘callous and recalcitrant, arbitrary and capricious, or willful, callous and persistent.’ … An employer’s failure or refusal to consider the medical evidence of an injury or illness submitted by a seaman in support of his claim for maintenance and cure is grounds for concluding the employer’s failure to institute maintenance and cure is arbitrary and willful.”
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s $300,000 punitive damages award for willful failure to timely pay maintenance and cure, but sent the case back to the trial court to develop further evidence on the lower court’s attorney’s fee award. It found ARTCO “considered only evidence that indicated the incident Ms. Stermer reported did not occur before denying her claim for maintenance and cure,” yet disregarded seven key facts that supported the validity of Stermer’s maintenance and cure claim. The appeals court held: “The totality of the evidence leads to the conclusion that once ARTCO had evidence that no accident occurred, it did not consider evidence corroborating Ms. Stermer’s claim that she was injured October 9. Under these facts, we find that ARTCO’s investigation of Ms. Stermer’s claim was neither diligent nor reasonable and, therefore, find no manifest error in the trial court’s conclusion that ARTCO was arbitrary and capricious in denying Ms. Stermer’s claim.” The appeals court also tacked-onto the judgment $10,000 for Stermer’s attorney’s fees on appeal.
* * *
Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly represents crewmen (including cooks, engineers, mates, deckhands, pilots, and captains) 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published: December 23, 2013
By: Frederick B. Goldsmith
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.
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.”
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 email@example.com.
Published: July 22, 2013
By: Frederick B. Goldsmith
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.'”
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Our website is www.golawllc.com.