Tag Archives: Jones Act negligence

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.

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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.

Towboat Company’s Pre-Trial Attack on Plaintiff Deckhand’s Liability Expert Fails

In Paster v. Ingram Barge Company, 2015 WL 3680700 (E.D. La. June 12, 2015), deckhand Tommy Paster sued Ingram, his employer and the owner/operator of the towboat, the M/V O.A. FRANKS, alleging he seriously injured his back while standing on the edge of a barge and using a three to four-foot pole with a hook attached to it to grab equipment from the deck of the towboat located several feet below.  After hooking the equipment, Paster was able to pull it up to the barge, unassisted.  And while he was able to work the rest of the day, Paster claims the next day he awoke with pain radiating from his back down his leg — classic signs of a vertebral disc injury.  When he was lifting the equipment the day before, Paster claims he felt a “twinge” in his back.  Paster’s attorney made claims against Ingram in a federal court lawsuit under the Jones Act, for negligence, and under the general maritime law, for unseaworthiness.

Paster’s lawyer hired a liability expert, Robert E. “Bob” Borison, to opine on the cause of Paster’s accident.  In his report, Borison attributed the accident to, among other things, Ingram’s failure to have conducted essentially a job hazard analysis of the lifting operation in question, and failure to have properly trained Paster on proper lifting techniques in these circumstances.  The Court (U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance) summarized Borison’s three principal opinions as follows:

“Taken together, Borison’s expert testimony seeks to establish that (1) plaintiff’s work assignment required him to assume an unsafe lifting position, thereby causing his injury, (2) a reasonably competent safety professional would have assigned more manpower or mechanical power to assist plaintiff with the lift, and (3) defendant failed to adequately train plaintiff on proper lifting techniques under the circumstances.”

Ingram filed a pre-trial motion to strike Borison as an expert, to keep the jury from hearing his testimony.  Ingram argued Borison’s opinions were based on insufficient facts, misleading, and would not be helpful to the jury.  Ingram did not attack Borison’s qualifications, just his opinions.

In addressing Ingram’s motion, Judge Vance first ruled that “Borison’s proposed testimony is not within the scope of a layman’s common experience.  Contrary to the defendant’s assertions, Borison’s testimony is not simply that ‘someone should not lift something that is too big or too awkward for them to handle.’  Instead, Borison evaluates the specific posture plaintiff allegedly assumed, and opines that defendant failed to provide the necessary manpower or mechanical assistance to allow plaintiff to make the lift safely.  Borison is undoubtedly more familiar with the tools plaintiff was using, the equipment plaintiff was lifting, and the safety risks associated with working on barges than the average layperson.  Moreover, as an instructor ‘in the proper method of manual material handling,’ Borison is qualified to opine about the appropriate or customary level of training in the maritime industry.”  So, the Court found that, “Borison’s experience and specialized knowledge regarding maritime safety and industry custom will assist the trier of fact in determining whether [Ingram’s] conduct fell beneath the applicable standard of care in this case.”

Judge Vance was also unpersuaded by Ingram’s argument that Borison’s opinions were misleading or factually deficient.  As to Ingram’s criticism of Borison’s report insofar as it, in Ingram’s counsel’s words, “creates negligent-sounding section titles that imply Ingram did something wrong, and then declines to identify how Ingram actually merited his condemnation or discusses something entirely different …,” the Court found Borison’s report’s section titles were not evidence and the defendant’s argument “exalts form over substance and erroneously focuses on Borison’s section headings and typeface rather than on the content of Borison’s report.”  Judge Vance noted that Borison had written in his report that Ingram had caused plaintiff to assume an unsafe lifting position, failed to allocate sufficient resources to allow plaintiff to make the lift safely, and failed to adequately train plaintiff.”

Finally, in ruling that Borison would be permitted to testify before the jury as to each of the opinions appearing in his report, Judge Vance wrote:

“Although the Court agrees that Borison’s report is not the model of clarity, defendant’s cavils about Borison’s headings do not render Borison’s underlying opinions inadmissible.  Moreover, Borison states that he bases his opinions on an interview with plaintiff, defendant’s records, and thirty years of experience in the industry.  To the extent defendant disputes the underlying facts or disagrees with Borison’s interpretation of those facts, defendant may cross-examine Borison at trial.”

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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, such as deckhands, mates, cooks, engineers, pilots, and captains, and we regularly hire liability experts to assist the jury’s understanding of how and why our clients’ accidents occurred.  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.

Jury Properly Instructed “Assumption of the Risk” is No Defense, When Employer Injects Such Evidence and Argument Into Case

Union Pacific R. Co. v. Estate of Gutierrez, 2014 WL 4109586 (Tex.App. — Houston [1st Dist.] August 21, 2014), is a Federal Employers Liability Act (or “FELA”) case.  But, the Jones Act, applicable to a seaman’s negligence action against his employer for personal injury or death, expressly incorporates the FELA by reference, so court decisions under the FELA are highly persuasive in Jones Act cases, and vice versa.

UPIn this case, although the Court found Congress had amended the FELA in 1939 to abolish the assumption of the risk defense in actions brought under this statute, the Court agreed with plaintiff’s counsel that the railroad’s lawyer had repeatedly placed before the jury argument and evidence implying the deceased rail worker had a choice in many aspects of his job, and essentially that the worker could have through his choices avoided his own accident.  Under these circumstances, the appeals court agreed with the trial judge that it was necessary to instruct the jury before it retired to reach its verdict that the assumption of the risk defense was not available to the railroad defendant, in order to ensure the jury had a proper understanding of applicable law.

The appeals court summarized the deceased worker’s estate’s position on appeal as follows:

“Appellees, however, argue that appellant injected the issue of assumption of the risk by repeatedly telling the jury that Gutierrez had chosen to work the job on which he was injured, in the location where he was injured, and under the conditions existing at the time, despite there being no requirement for him to do so because his seniority allowed him to choose a different job. In support of their position, appellees point to several exchanges in voir dire during which appellant’s counsel asked venire members how they responded to unsafe working conditions in their job, suggesting that stopping work in such conditions was ‘good sense’ and assuming ‘personal responsibility.’ In opening statements, appellant’s counsel referred several times to Gutierrez’s seniority, that it allowed him to bid on any job he wanted, and that he picked the RIP track because that was his preferred location. Appellees also point to co-workers’ testimony elicited by [the railroad] that Gutierrez chose to work the job on which he was injured, despite seniority that allowed him to choose any position. Appellees argue that given these examples, and the fact that appellant claimed that Gutierrez had been contributorily negligent in causing his injury, an instruction that assumption of the risk is not a defense was warranted.”

The appeals court, in agreeing that the curative instruction to the jury on the non-applicability of the assumption of the risk defense was warranted, wrote:

“[A] trial court may instruct a jury that assumption of the risk is not a defense if there are ‘facts strongly suggesting assumption of the risk…..Here, appellant’s counsel reminded the jury numerous times—in voir dire, in opening statements, and through witness testimony—of the fact that Gutierrez’s seniority allowed him to choose any job he wanted but that he had chosen the job and location where he worked….Further, we note that a defendant’s intentions in presenting such evidence is not the proper focus; rather, it is the potential impact on the jury that governs whether an instruction is given….”

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Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly represents crewmen (including cooks, engineers, mates, deckhands, pilots, and captains) of towboats, tugs, barges, and other commercial vessels, passengers aboard cruise and excursion boats and ships, and railroad workers covered by the FELA. If you have questions about your or your family’s legal rights under the Jones Act, the general maritime law, also known as “admiralty law,” or the FELA, feel free to contact Fred Goldsmith or Rich Ogrodowski toll-free at 877-404-6529 or 412-281-4340. Our website is http://www.golawllc.com.  Our e-mail address is info@golawllc.com.  We practice primarily in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, but also all over the inland waterways.

Towboat Company’s One-Sided Review of, and Delay in Paying, Seaman’s Maintenance and Cure Claim Draws $300,000 Punitive Damages Judgment

In Stermer v. Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., 2014 WL 25153872014 (La. App. 3d Cir.  June 4, 2014), American River Transportation Company (ARTCO) employed Adrienne Stermer as a cook on its towboat.  About two weeks into her hitch, while the towboat was facing up to its tow and Stermer was in the galley, kneeling before an open refrigerator, cleaning a steak sauce tray, the vessel’s movements caused her to lose her balance and fall forward.  Apparently no one warned her to “watch the bump.”  Stermer tried to steady herself by grabbing a shelf inside the refrigerator, but her fingers went through the rack and her right hand was pushed backward.  Her knees hit the floor.  She tried to use her left hand to brace herself for the fall, but instead rolled onto her right ankle.  Nevertheless, she got herself up, brushed herself off, and returned to work.  While she had pain and swelling in her hands and right ankle, she just took Advil.  Stermer testified she was afraid to report her accident for fear of being fired.  But, five days later, when her hands and right ankle continued to swell and she could no longer tie her shoes, Stermer reported her injuries to the boat’s engineer, who informed the pilot.  Stermer then completed an ARTCO accident report.

Adrienne Stermer worked as a cook aboard the ARTCO towboat, the M/V COOPERATIVE ENTERPRISE

Adrienne Stermer worked as a cook aboard the ARTCO towboat, the M/V COOPERATIVE ENTERPRISE

Three days later, ARTCO put Stermer ashore in Paducah, Kentucky, and to a hospital there.  The history of her injuries that Stermer gave to medical personnel at Western Baptist Hospital was consistent with what she had told the engineer and what she had written in her accident report.  The ER physician diagnosed bilateral hand and wrist sprains and a right ankle sprain, and prescribed antiinflammatories, pain medication, and an air cast for Stermer’s right ankle.  She then returned to her towboat, tried to work, but was relieved, and sent home to Louisiana.

Later, the vessel’s captain and a deckhand testified they were in the galley when Stermer claimed to have been hurt, that there were two bumps during the facing-up, but they did not see her fall into the refrigerator.  Just five days after Stermer reported her accident, ARTCO sent Stermer a letter asserting her “recent complaints did not manifest itself [sic] in the service of the vessel” and that it would not pay her maintenance and cure.  Three days later, ARTCO sent Stermer another letter, this time to fire her.  It wrote her “willful disregard for the truth … demonstrated an unacceptable standard of conduct.”

A hand surgery specialist in Louisiana continued to treat Stermer, at first conservatively, but then with surgery, to repair a scapholunate dissociation.  This is a tear in the ligament between the scaphoid and lunate bones in the wrist.  This surgeon found Stermer’s injury was not preexisting.  ARTCO obtained an “IME,” or “independent medical opinion,” from an orthopedic surgeon who opined the injury was present before the accident aboard the towboat.  ARTCO, despite being kept continuously apprised of Stermer’s medical course, and despite Stermer’s demands for maintenance and cure, including a request to pay for her surgery, refused to pay maintenance and cure for two and a half years.  It delayed approving the surgery for 27 months, even though its IME physician agreed Stermer needed the surgery.

Stermer brought claims in state court against ARTCO for negligence under the Jones Act and, under the general maritime law, for unseaworthiness, maintenance and cure, and retaliatory discharge.  At trial, the judge awarded Stermer on her Jones Act negligence claim nearly $100,000 for lost employee benefits, $337,000 in lost wages, and $200,000 for pain and suffering.  The court also found ARTCO’s refusal to pay Stermer maintenance and cure for two and a half years “arbitrary and capricious” and assessed an additional $300,000 in punitive damages and $150,000 in attorney’s fees.  The court found she had not proved her unseaworthiness and retaliatory discharge claims.

ARTCO appealed only the punitive damages and attorney’s fee aspects of the trial court’s judgment.  The Louisiana appellate court described the seaman’s maintenance and cure claim under the general maritime law, the deferential standard under which it is to be judged, and the consequences maritime employers face when they callously disregard their maintenance and cure obligation.

The appeals court in its opinion wrote how maintenance and cure “is an ancient duty imposed upon the owner of a ship to provide food, lodging and necessary medical services to seamen who become ill or injured during service to the ship” and how “[r]ecovery is not dependent upon negligence of the vessel or the owner and the burden of proof in seeking maintenance and cure is relatively light.”  To win a maintenance and cure claim, “a seaman need only prove that the injury arose during his service of the vessel” and the seaman does not even have to prove his or her duties caused the injury.

Continuing, the appeals court noted that while an employer is entitled to investigate a seaman’s claim for maintenance and cure, to rely on recognized defenses to deny benefits when appropriate, and to require corroboration of the claim, the employer cannot be “lax” in its investigation.  Further, the court wrote, “when an employer’s investigation of a seaman’s claim reveals that doubts or ambiguities exist as to whether the seaman is entitled to maintenance and cure, they are resolved in favor of the seaman.”  “If an employer fails to properly investigate a claim for maintenance and cure or unreasonably rejects a claim after investigating the claim, the employer may be liable for compensatory damages that are a consequence of the failure to pay maintenance and cure. … The employer may also be liable for punitive damages and attorney fees if it is ‘more egregiously at fault’ in denying a proper claim for maintenance and cure. … This higher degree of fault has been explained as ‘callous and recalcitrant, arbitrary and capricious, or willful, callous and persistent.’ … An employer’s failure or refusal to consider the medical evidence of an injury or illness submitted by a seaman in support of his claim for maintenance and cure is grounds for concluding the employer’s failure to institute maintenance and cure is arbitrary and willful.”

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s $300,000 punitive damages award for willful failure to timely pay maintenance and cure, but sent the case back to the trial court to develop further evidence on the lower court’s attorney’s fee award.  It found ARTCO “considered only evidence that indicated the incident Ms. Stermer reported did not occur before denying her claim for maintenance and cure,” yet disregarded seven key facts that supported the validity of Stermer’s maintenance and cure claim.  The appeals court held: “The totality of the evidence leads to the conclusion that once ARTCO had evidence that no accident occurred, it did not consider evidence corroborating Ms. Stermer’s claim that she was injured October 9.  Under these facts, we find that ARTCO’s investigation of Ms. Stermer’s claim was neither diligent nor reasonable and, therefore, find no manifest error in the trial court’s conclusion that ARTCO was arbitrary and capricious in denying Ms. Stermer’s claim.”  The appeals court also tacked-onto the judgment $10,000 for Stermer’s attorney’s fees on appeal.

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Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, regularly represents crewmen (including cooks, engineers, mates, deckhands, pilots, and captains) of towboats, tugs, barges, and other commercial vessels, as well as passengers aboard cruise and excursion boats and ships.  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 Fred Goldsmith or Rich Ogrodowski toll-free at 877-404-6529 or 412-281-4340.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.  Our e-mail address is info@golawllc.com.

Federal Appeals Court Affirms Unseaworthiness Findings and $1.2 Million Pain & Suffering Damages to 52-Year-Old Tug Crewman

I posted in Towboatlaw on this case in January 2013, four days after U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon entered her decision in Harrington v. Atlantic Sounding Co., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2988 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 7, 2013), finding Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. and Weeks Marine, Inc. negligent under the Jones Act and the tug CANDACE unseaworthy under the general maritime law.   She found no contributory negligence and 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 defendants appealed to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Three days ago, in Marasa v. Atlantic Sounding Co., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 1073 (2d Cir. Jan. 21, 2014) (unpub.), this appeals court largely affirmed the judgment, which, with prejudgment interest, totaled $1,727,471.16.  The Second Circuit only reduced the judgment by $16,308, the sum which the defendants previously paid pursuant to a Claim Arbitration Agreement.

Of particular interest in the appeals court’s decision is its approval of the trial court’s findings in favor of the injured crewman on his claim for general maritime law unseaworthiness, and the trial judge’s award of $1.2 million for past and future pain and suffering damages.

As to unseaworthiness, the Second Circuit wrote how its precedent has long held that a vessel can be unseaworthy if its crew is inadequately trained: “Our precedent recognizes that ‘a vessel being operated by an incompetent captain or crew is considered unseaworthy,'” citing Complaint of Messina, 574 F.3d 119, 127 (2d Cir. 2009), Matter of Guglielmo, 897 F.2d 58, 61 (2d Cir. 1990), Tug Ocean Prince, Inc. v. United States, 584 F.2d 1151, 1155 (2d Cir. 1978), and 1B Benedict on Admiralty § 24 (2004) (recognizing that “an unseaworthy condition . . . on an otherwise fit vessel” can be created by “incompetent training or experience” or “unsafe method of work”).

In affirming Judge Gershon’s assessment of $500,000 in past and $700,000 in future pain and suffering damages, the Second Circuit found, first, that even though the injured crewman, Frederick J. Harrington Jr., died while the appeal was pending (Madeline Marasa is the personal representative of Harrington, in whose name the appeal was defended), the defendants were unentitled to a reduction in his estate’s future pain and suffering damages award.  Second, the appeals court discussed how the trial court found “Harrington’s injury resulted in extraordinary pain and suffering, requiring multiple spinal surgeries and daily medication.”  Judge Gershon had described in detail Harrington’s two back surgeries and the many activities he could no longer perform, given his injuries.  Accordingly, the Second Circuit did not find the $1.2 million pain and suffering damages award excessive, and affirmed.

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Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, represents crewmen of towboats, tugs, barges, and other commercial vessels, as well as passengers aboard cruise and excursion boats and ships.  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 Fred Goldsmith or Rich Ogrodowski toll-free at 877-404-6529 or 412-281-4340.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.  Our e-mail address is info@golawllc.com.

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.”

* * *

“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.