Tag Archives: crew injuries

Tug Operator Ordered to Pay Injured Deckhand’s Attorney’s Fees and Punitive Damages for Willful Failure to Pay Maintenance and Cure

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.

Vane Line Bunkering, Inc.'s Tug PATRIOT

Vane Line Bunkering, Inc.’s Tug PATRIOT

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.

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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 info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.  We practice primarily in PA, WV, and OH, but also all over the inland waterways.

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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.”

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“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.”

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“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.”

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“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.

52 Year-Old Crewman of Offshore Tug Injured During Submerged Pipeline Anchor Pulling Entitled to $1,678,948 in Damages

In Harrington v. Atlantic Sounding Co., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2988 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 7, 2013), Brooklyn-based U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon found Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. and Weeks Marine, Inc. negligent under the Jones Act and the tug M/V CANDACE unseaworthy under the general maritime law.   She found no contributory negligence.  She awarded Frederick J. Harrington Jr., 52 at the time of the accident, $478,948 in past lost wages and loss of future earning capacity, $500,000 for past pain and suffering, and $700,000 for future pain and suffering.

The accident occurred on April 10, 2005, while the CANDACE was offshore Panama City, Florida, and its crew was moving a submerged pipeline.  Before the crew could move the pipeline, though, it had to lift the anchors attached to the ends of the pipeline, a process called “anchor pulling” or “line pulling.”  The court discussed how, to “lift the anchor, a tugboat is required to position itself near a buoy, floating on the surface of the water, which is connected by a pennant wire to the anchor on the floor of the ocean.”

Judge Gershon was persuaded by Harrington’s maritime expert, Mitchell Stoller, who testified that the tug should have been positioned to minimize vessel movement during the operation, which movement could cause the crewmen working on the deck “to get jerked or lose their balance or [get] hurt.”  The court described how the accident occurred, as follows:

“As plaintiff and [another crewman] began the process of retrieving and lifting the line anchor, plaintiff was tasked with using the boat hook to capture the pennant wire, while [the other crewman] held the winch cable and hook.  [The tug’s First Mate] had maneuvered the boat so that it was abeam to the sea, and therefore the boat was rolling back and forth.  The rolling, combined with the wet stainless steel deck and the open stern, left plaintiff standing in an awkward position.  After plaintiff captured the pennant wire and pulled the buoy toward the boat, he was crouched in a wide stance, in order to maintain his footing while leaning forward to retrieve the pennant wire’s eyelet.  After retrieving the pennant wire, while attempting to connect it to the trip hook, the boat moved out of position, causing the pennant wire to go taut, which twisted plaintiff’s back causing the injury in question.  Nevertheless, because there was slack in the winch cable, plaintiff was able to make the connection with the trip hook and successfully complete the task.”

Judge Gershon found the defendants negligent because the First Mate failed to ensure Harrington was in a position to perform the task safely and failed to maintain the tug in a proper position.  The judge found the M/V CANDACE unseaworthy because the entire crew “had very limited experience pulling line anchors through floating buoys on a tug with an open stern,” and that the First Mate, who was at the wheel, “had none.”  Further, the crew was “working on a brand new vessel unlike any that defendants had previously launched and which was designed for a task different from that in which the three were engaged.”  Also, “defendants provided no training, no assessment of the risks, and provided no instruction on how the task might be performed safely or how plaintiff might position himself while attempting to pull an anchor without a stern on which to brace himself. Finally, and most importantly, defendants failed to train [the First Mate] on how best to position, and keep in position, the tug while plaintiff was pulling the anchors.”

A neurosurgeon diagnosed Harrington with a herniated lumbar disc and right foot drop, that was a result of a severely compressed nerve in his lower back.  Harrington underwent two surgeries: An L4-L5 diskectomy, followed by an L4-L5 fusion.  The fusion involved removal of the spinal disc and implantation of a carbon-fiber cage, fastened with screws to the bone above and below the disc space.

Judge Gershon determined Harrington’s loss of enjoyment of life was significant.  She found he “can no longer do any of the activities that he did prior to the injury, including fishing, maintenance of his home, walking on the beach, scuba diving, or riding a bike.  In addition, because of his limitations regarding sitting and walking, plaintiff is substantially confined to his home and has gained a significant amount of weight.  Plaintiff attempted to take computer classes, so that he would be able to work a computer, but was unable to take the class because he could not sit for the required period of time.”

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 (toll-free), 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.

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.

Welcome to Towboatlaw

Welcome to Towboatlaw, a blog focused on admiralty & maritime law as it is applied by judges and lawyers on the rivers and other inland waterways of the United States.  My name is Fred Goldsmith.  I am a lawyer who focuses his practice on admiralty and maritime law.  I, along with my partner, Rich Ogrodowski, am the co-founder of Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC (http://www.golawllc.com), a law firm based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is dedicated to representing workers, or families of workers, who have been seriously injured or killed working aboard towboats and barges as deckhands, pilots, captains, engineers, mates, and cooks.  We practice primarily in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, but also all over the inland waterways.

Through this blog I hope to highlight legal and other issues that may interest the men and women, and their families, who work in one of the most important, yet dangerous, occupations in this country.  Towboats push barges on the inland waterways, or “brown waters,” of the United States, transporting products which are critical to the American economy, such as: coal for power plants and steel mills; oil, gasoline, and diesel to power and lubricate cars, trucks, and machinery; sand, gravel, and other aggregates which are used to pave our streets and highways, build our homes, offices, and factories; steel, aluminum, and scrap metals which are the building blocks of automobiles, refrigerators, freezers, and the feedstock for steel mills; and corn and wheat for our domestic food industries and for export.

Paddlewheel towboat “Mark Twain” and barge tow circa 1930s

The basic technology of the river industry, as important as it is, however, has not really changed in over 100 years.  Towboats (sometimes also called “pushboats”), historically powered by steam-driven engines, yet now diesel-powered, still, as they were many decades ago, are wired to (or “faced up” to) and push barges, formerly made of wood, now made of steel.  This industry still requires men and women to be away from home and family for days and weeks at at time.  It still demands these same men and women work around the clock, every single day of the year, in the heat and humidity of a Louisiana summer and the numbing cold of a western Pennsylvania winter.  They must work in ultra-hazardous locations, amidst tremendous forces.

The most unfortunate part of the towboat and barge industry, however, is when companies do not operate their vessels safely.  When companies are unsafe, when they fail to have a corporate culture focused on safety, from the chairman on down, it is these men and women, who serve as deckhands, engineers, captains, pilots, mates, and cooks, who can be seriously injured or killed.  I have been involved in maritime law for over two decades.  I have seen cases involving maritime workers who have suffered, for instance, electrocutions, amputations, and serious back injuries requiring the surgical fusing together of vertebrae and the surgical implantation of titanium rods and screws.

In my law practice, I endeavor to stay abreast of the changing landscape of the law, including state and federal statutes, regulations, and judicial decisions, which applies to the cases I used to defend, but now prosecute, when these hardworking men and women are injured or killed.  Through this blog, I intend to share with you some of these legal developments.  I hope you find the blog interesting and enlightening.

If you have questions you’d like to ask our lawyers about your or your family’s legal rights under admiralty and maritime law, feel free to contact us at 877-404-6529 (toll-free), 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.