Unseaworthiness Under the General Maritime Law: Court Decision Highlights Jones Act Seaman’s Powerful Claim to Recover for Injury

In Laborde v. SGS North America, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 170544 (M.D. La. Nov. 29, 2012), Brent Laborde sued his employer, SGS, as a seaman under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C.A. § 30104, for personal injuries he coil_of_ropesustained while moving a heavy coil of rope aboard the M/V Helen G, which was also owned, operated, and maintained by SGS.  He claimed SGS was negligent and the M/V Helen G was unseaworthy.  SGS filed a motion for partial summary judgment, asking the federal trial court to dismiss Laborde’s unseaworthiness claim.  In his opinion denying SGS’s motion, Judge James J. Brady of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana reviewed the law on the vessel owner’s warranty of seaworthiness which it owes its crewmembers, and what can constitute an “unseaworthy” condition aboard a vessel.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539, 550, (1960), the Baton Rouge-based court discussed how a shipowner’s warranty of seaworthiness encompasses a duty to “furnish a vessel and appurtenances reasonably fit for their intended use.”  Other courts have explained this duty as requiring the vessel owner to “provide a vessel, including her equipment and crew, which is reasonably fit and safe for the purpose for which it is to be used.”  Boudreaux v. United States, 280 F.3d 461, 468 (5th Cir. 2002).  Unseaworthiness can also be “manifested by an unsafe method of work, such  as the failure by a shipowner to provide adequate equipment for the performance of an assigned task.”  Johnson v. Offshore Express, Inc., 845 F.2d 1347, 1354-1355 (5th Cir. 1988).

In Usner v. Luckenbach, 400 U.S. 494, 498 (1971), the Supreme Court held that “unseaworthiness is a condition, and how that condition came into being – whether by negligence or otherwise – is quite irrelevant to the owner’s liability for personal injuries resulting from it.”

To win an unseaworthiness claim, the seaman plaintiff must also establish causation, that is, prove that the “unseaworthy condition played a substantial part in bringing about or actually causing the injury and that the injury was either a direct result or a reasonably probable consequence of the unseaworthiness.” Johnson v. Offshore Express, Inc., 845 F.2d at 1354.

Under the general maritime law, there is a difference between “transitory unseaworthiness,” which subjects a vessel owner to liability, and “instant unseaworthiness,” caused by a single, unforeseeable act of operational negligence, which does not.  A transitory unseaworthy condition, like a permanent defect, will render a ship unseaworthy.

Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, represents crewmen of towboats, barges, and other commercial vessels, as well as passengers aboard cruise and excursion boats and ships, primarily in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, but also all over the inland waterways.  If you have questions about your or your family’s legal rights under admiralty and maritime law, feel free to contact us at 877-404-6529, 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s