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Land-Based Jones Act Seaman Status, Emotional Damages, and the “Zone of Danger”

Posted in Jones Act

Fifth Circuit Affirms Jury Finding for Land-Based Worker to be Covered by Jones Act but Reverses Award of Emotional Damages in Naquin v. Elevating Boats LLC, No. 12-31258 (5th Cir., 3/10/14)

Plaintiff, Larry Naquin, Sr., a vessel repair supervisor employed by Elevating Boats, LLC, was injured on November 17, 2009, when a shipyard crane he was operating suddenly failed, causing the boom and crane housing to separate from the crane pedestal. In addition to Mr Naquin’s injury, a relative of his was killed when the crane boom landed on a structure in which the relative was working.

Although Mr. Naquin was not assigned to any particular vessel but oversaw the repair of a number of vessels manufactured and/or owned by his employer, he was found, by a jury, to be a Jones Act seaman and was awarded significant damages, including $1,000,000 for past and future physical pain and suffering, $1,000,000 for past and future metal pain and suffering, and $400,000 for future lost wages.

The employer appealed the jury’s finding to the Fifth Circuit, asserting that Mr. Naquin had failed to establish that he was a Jones Act seaman, that the evidence was insufficient to establish the employer’s negligence, and that the District Court erred by admitting evidence of Mr. Naquin’s relative’s death in regard to his claim for damages.

A split Fifth Circuit decision on the issue of status authored by Judge W. Eugene Davis affirmed the jury’s determination. The majority indicated that in accord with established precedent, Mr. Naquin could be considered to be assigned to and in the service of an identifiable fleet of vessels owned by his employer to which he spent approximately 70% of his time in the maintenance thereof. In dissent Judge Jones questioned how a land-based employee whose work was primarily on vessels docked for repair or maintenance could be exposed to the perils of the sea and be said to be in the service of a vessel in navigation. She suggested that under the majority’s rationale any land-based worker, even one hired to fuel the boats at the employer’s dock, could qualify as a seaman.

The employer also complained that the jury finding of negligence was one that was solely built upon circumstantial evidence and that there was no direct evidence indicating that the employer caused or could have foreseen the accident. The panel pointed out that the crane in question was manufactured, maintained and owned by the employer, and although Mr. Naquin could not prove precisely why a weld had failed, it was undisputable that the employer was the party who was responsible for the design of the crane and the integrity of the weld.

The panel however reversed the jury finding on damages on the basis that emotional damages are not recoverable under the Jones Act unless the plaintiff is considered to be within the “zone of danger.” While Mr. Naquin was within the “zone of danger” insofar as his own injuries were concerned, the Court questioned whether he could assert a claim for emotional harm arising from the injury to and death of his relative. In determining that this was not a recoverable element of damages under the Jones Act, the Court felt that the presentation of evidence with regard to the death of the relative so pervaded the other elements of damages that it reversed the complete damage award, remanding the matter for a trial on the sole issue of damages.