Court Finds Seaman’s Protection Act Requires Tug Captain Fired for Reporting Safety Violations be Re-Hired

In Harley Marine Services, Inc. v. U.S. Department of Labor, 2017 WL 370843 (11th Cir. Jan. 26. 2017), the Court ruled the justification Harley Marine gave for firing tug captain Joseph E. Dady was pretextual, that Harley Marine fired Dady for reporting unsafe activities which violated federal law or regulation, and that Harley knew about Dady’s reports when it fired him. The violations Dady reported related to inadequate crewing, inadequate lookouts, sewage runoff, and steering failure.

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OSHA has a webpage devoted to the Seaman’s Protection Act and how to report violations:
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Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, focuses its practice on protecting the rights of commercial vessel crewmembers. We 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 http://www.golawllc.com.

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.

Court Orders Towboat Company to Produce Surveillance Video Before Crewman’s Deposition

In Meyer v. Turn Services, L.L.C., 2016 WL 6610931 (E.D. La.  Nov. 9, 2016), a federal magistrate judge granted the plaintiff towboat crewman’s motion to compel the defendant towboat company to produce surveillance video it had shot of the crewman.  The Court also denied the company’s motion for a protective order to allow it to withhold the video until after its lawyer had taken the crewman’s deposition.  Magistrate Judge Wilkinson wrote:

“Defendant has failed to make a particular and specific demonstration of fact, that withholding [its] surveillance evidence will either encourage a dishonest plaintiff to testify honestly or enable them to catch plaintiff in a lie….To conclude that a witness would lie or would testify truthfully only because of the threat that a surveillance tape might exist is simply stereotyping, an exercise in speculation….[Defendant’s argument is] a faulty one, because it flies directly in the face of the very purpose of discovery. The federal rules promote broad discovery so that all relevant evidence is disclosed as early as possible,…a fair contest, where each party can knowledgeably evaluate the strength of its evidence and chances of ultimate success.”

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“To permit plaintiff’s deposition to go forward before production of the surveillance evidence that all parties know exists undermines the search for truth, inhibits full trial preparation and settlement evaluation and invites an evidentiary mess at trial. I have reviewed numerous surveillance films and photographs in personal injury cases during my 21 years as a magistrate judge, both during and before trial. They depict what they depict, but seldom provide a full evidentiary picture. Invariably, the secretly recorded plaintiff has some explanation for the conduct being photographed, some testimony about the absolute necessity of his or her engaging in the photographed activity or some complaint that the photography does not also show the pain, discomfort, disability or medical treatment experienced in the aftermath of the surreptitiously recorded activity. The very purpose of discovery is to get all such facts and explanations on the table and out in the open, so that the case may be fully and accurately evaluated and adjudicated.”

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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.

Texas Federal Judge Sends to Trial Case of Deckhand Who Seriously Injured His Back Trying to Swing a Barge Swivel Winch

In Bordas v. Marquette Transp. Co. Gulf-Inland LLC, 2016 WL 2866266 (S.D. Tex. Apr. 26, 2016), report and recommendation adopted, 2016 WL 2858905 (S.D. Tex. May 16, 2016), U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the Southern District of Texas agreed with U.S. Magistrate Judge Jason B. Libby that Marquette Transportation Company Gulf–Inland, L.L.C. deckhand John Bordas’ case against Marquette, his employer and the operator of his towboat, and Ingram Barge Company, the owner of the barge upon which he was injured, should be tried, and thus denied both defendants’ pretrial motions for summary judgment.  Due to his injuries, Bordas had to undergo three back surgeries, including a lumbar fusion.  He was working as a first mate for Marquette aboard its towboat, the M/V ST. JOSEPH.  Bordas claimed he injured his back while aboard Ingram’s barge, in the process of securing a second barge into tow.  He alleged that as he tried to singlehandedly move the swivel winch on the Ingram barge into position, it became caught or stuck and caused his injury.

The Court described how the defendants tried to lay all blame for the injury on Bordas himself:

“Here, Marquette moves for summary judgment, arguing it cannot be held liable for Plaintiff’s injury because the sole cause of Plaintiff’s injuries ‘was wholly unexpected, undetectable, and was not caused or contributed to by any of Marquette’s acts or omissions.’ Marquette also argues Plaintiff ‘was the only person in a position to judge whether the winch was functioning and how much force he could safely apply.’ In making these arguments, Marquette relies solely on Plaintiff’s testimony that there was adequate crew to perform the operation, Plaintiff inspected the barge beforehand and all equipment appeared normal, nothing indicated the subject winch was defective, and he injured himself when he attempted to move the winch and it did not move or swivel as designed.”

Captain Phillip Hogan, the main captain of the M/V ST. JOSEPH, however, testified at deposition about “the status of swivel winches in the industry, their known hazards, and the condition of the winch in question.”  The Court found Captain Hogan’s testimony sufficient to establish a material issue of fact for trial “as to whether Marquette violated its duty to provide Bordas with a safe place to work through its failure to inspect the Ingram barge and its winches.”  The Court wrote, “an employer has a duty to inspect third party ships to which it sends its employee to work upon….If, by reasonable inspection, Marquette could have discovered the improperly functioning winch, then Marquette can be charged with notice of that condition.”

In denying Ingram–the barge owner’s–motion for summary judgement, the Court again relied on Captain Hogan’s testimony, writing:

“Further, Captain Hogan’s testimony establishes a deck hand from the towing vessel is at some point going to be on a towed barge to make and break tow and the towed barge’s winches are used to make and break tow. A defective or non-functioning winch could easily cause harm to the deckhand of the towing vessel. Captain Hogan’s testimony provides some evidence that the very nature of swivel winches causes hazards that are not present with stationary winches and the industry is moving away from swivel winches due to their hazards. Plaintiff has produced evidence that creates an issue of material fact–whether Ingram knew or should have known the swivel winch on its barge was not working properly and advised Marquette.

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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.  While we practice primarily in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, we will also consider accepting cases anywhere in the U.S., typically with assistance from local counsel.

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.

Punitive Damages Claim Against Operator of Lift Bridge, Which Crushed Tug’s Wheelhouse, Killing Captain, May Proceed to Trial

In Collins v. A.B.C. Marine Towing, L.L.C. and Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans, 2015 WL 9257862 (E.D. La. Dec. 18, 2015), a Louisiana federal court reconsidered its prior decision and denied the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans’ motion to dismiss punitive damages claims against it.  The case grew out of the accident which occurred when a tug, operated by ABC Marine, towing a deck barge owned by Boh Bros. Construction Co., was transiting the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in Orleans Parish, Louisiana.  Aboard the barge was a large crane.  Around midnight on August 13, 2014, the mast of the crane struck the Florida Avenue lift bridge, which had not been raised to its highest position.  The crane boom then fell atop the tug’s pilothouse, killing tug captain, Michael Collins, and seriously damaging the crane barge.

Florida Avenue lift bridge spanning the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in Orleans Parish, Louisiana

Florida Avenue lift bridge spanning the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in Orleans Parish, Louisiana

While the Bridge’s Operator Manual required the bridge to be opened to its fullest extent for each opening, the Court found “several bridge tenders testified that they did not review any operating or policy manuals as part of their bridge tender training.”

The lift bridge also suffered from mechanical problems before the accident, leading bridge tenders to deviate from the Operator’s Manual and not fully open the bridge for each opening.  Instead, the bridge tenders were trained to only raise the bridge several feet above the height requested by each passing vessel.  On the night of the accident,  the bridge tender claimed she raised the bridge four feet higher than that requested by Captain Collins.  But this was not high enough.

Why did the Court change its position?  Boh Bros., owner of the crane barge, showed the Court video which revealed the Board’s bridge tenders, even after this fatal accident, continued to fail to raise the bridge to its fullest extent.  The Court also referenced a federal law, specifically a Coast Guard bridge operation regulation found at 33 C.F.R. § 117.5, which also required the Board to “fully open” the bridge every time (“[e]xcept as otherwise authorized or required by this part, drawbridges must open promptly and fully for the passage of vessels when a request or signal to open is given in accordance with this subpart.”).

The Court concluded:

“Therefore, notwithstanding the fatal tragedy that is the basis of this case, the video footage demonstrates that the Board continues to disregard the mandate of 33 C.F.R. § 117.5. The Court appreciates the Board’s argument that this video footage is inapposite because it was taken on a day when the Bridge was undergoing electrical repairs. However, the Court notes that any conclusions it might draw from this video footage would be based on material facts in dispute. In other words, whether or not this evidence confirms that the Board had in the past and continues to act with reckless conduct and callous disregard for life and property sufficient to justify an award of punitive damages is not an issue that can be determined summarily at this time in view of their arguably continuing practice. Rather, this new evidence, particularly taken together with the genuine issues of material fact discussed in the October 14 Order & Reasons, introduces a new fact issue that must be decided at trial.”

The Court had previously decided that punitive damages were available under the general maritime law in this case, and denied a defense motion to dismiss them as a matter of law.

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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 on the U.S. inland waterways.

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.