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

  • 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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  • Tug Operator’s Lack of Training and Procedures Lead to Deckhand’s Crushing Death in Capstan and $1.6 Million Judgment

    Two days after Christmas 2009 aboard the Tug TURECAMO GIRLS, deckhand Ricardo Young was crushed to death in the tug’s capstan.  Medical experts testified Young was conscious for over two minutes to experience his body being torn apart as the towing line, attached to a sludge barge weighing 15 million pounds, wrapped him around the capstan while the captain attempted a “swing maneuver” on the Hackensack River.  The case was tried to the bench.  In In re Moran Towing Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 161482 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 11, 2013), the court found Moran directly and vicariously negligent under the Jones Act and its tug unseaworthy under the general maritime law.

    The Tug TURECAMO GIRLS

    The Tug TURECAMO GIRLS

    The court found:

    “Moran failed to adequately implement any procedures or guidelines that would provide its crew with the requisite training, skill and knowledge to safely perform a swing maneuver, operate the capstan or handle towlines. … In fact, Moran issued no policies as to line-handling whatsoever, including ongoing training or standards for handling a line under strain. Additionally, Moran did not provide a safe work environment in which to handle the capstan, forcing Young to operate in a danger zone. These failures proximately contributed to Young’s death.”

    The court further found:

    “Moran also failed to provide any written policies or safety procedures regarding the swing maneuver as required under the ISM [International Safety Management Code] and RCP [American Waterways Operators Responsible Carrier Program].  Moran adheres to the ISM and the RCP, which respectively require that ‘the company should establish procedures, plans and instructions, including checklists as appropriate, for key shipboard operations concerning the safety of the personnel’ and ‘establish documented procedures for the use of . . . winches.’ … The capstan is a type of winch, and line-handling is arguably the most important ‘shipboard operation.’ … Despite subscribing to these safety requirements, Moran did not have any written guidelines, instructions or procedures whatsoever for line handling during swing maneuvers or capstan operations. … Moran did not have a risk assessment for a swing maneuver or handling lines under pressure, or safety procedures for capstan operations in any of its Port Advisories or safety meetings, or require its captains and crews to dedicate time during the safety meetings to discuss or practice the swing maneuver or capstan operations for lines under strain. … Additionally, Moran’s [safety and operations manual] contains no instructions with respect to line handling or the swing maneuver.”

    The court held Moran had failed to prove it was entitled to limit its liability under the Vessel Owners’ Limitation of Liability Act and that Young’s widow and estate were entitled to about $1.6 million in damages.

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    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, represents the families of captains, pilots, 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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  • Influential U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals: Jones Act Seaman Can Recover Punitive Damages In General Maritime Law Unseaworthiness Claim

    In McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 20187 (5th Cir.  Oct. 2, 2013), a panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of, if not the, most respected federal appellate courts when it comes to the development of maritime law in the United States, found that the Jones Act, which has been held to prohibit the recovery by seamen of non-pecuniary damages in a negligence claim brought under that statute, was no bar to the recovery of a form of non-pecuniary damages, specifically punitive damages, under the general maritime law in a seaman’s unseaworthiness action.  The Court described how punitive damages were available under the general maritime law long before the passage in 1920 of the Jones Act, and how the Jones Act did not expressly eliminate such damages.

    The Fifth Circuit navigated around the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990), by following the Supreme Court’s more recent decision in Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009).  In Townsend, the Supreme Court wrote:

    “Because punitive damages have long been an accepted remedy under general maritime law, and because nothing in the Jones Act altered this understanding, such damages for the willful and wanton disregard of the maintenance and cure obligation should remain available in the appropriate case as a matter of general maritime law.  Limiting recovery for maintenance and cure to whatever is permitted by the Jones Act would give greater pre-emptive effect to the Act than is required by its text, Miles, or any of this Court’s other decisions interpreting the statute.”

    The Fifth Circuit in McBride v. Estis Well Service, L.L.C built on the foundation excavated by the Supreme Court in Townsend, writing:

    “…Townsend established a straightforward rule going forward: if a general maritime law cause of action and remedy were established before the passage of the Jones Act, and the Jones Act did not address that cause of action or remedy, then that remedy remains available under that cause of action unless and until Congress intercedes.”

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    We viewed this as a good decision for our clients and the river industry workers we regularly represent.  Unfortunately, on September 25, 2014, all the judges of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, revisited this decision and overruled it, and on May 18, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review that decision.  Perhaps after this issue has been addressed by other federal circuit courts of appeal, and conflicts develop amongst the circuits, the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to address the issue of the recoverability by Jones Act seamen of both punitive and loss of consortium / loss of society damages under the general maritime law.  We believe they are recoverable under the sound logic of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend.

    Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, serves as legal counsel for captains, pilots, 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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  • 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.

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