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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