The recent ruling in Double J. Marine, LLC v. Matthew Nuber, No. 13-5825 (E.D. La. Dec. 11, 2013) serves as a key reminder that employers need to be mindful that courts scrutinize release agreements as seamen are the wards of the admiralty court, whose rights federal courts are duty-bound to jealously protect.

Double J. Marine, LLC employee Matthew Nuber, a seaman, injured his back on March 8, 2013, while working, and was brought to the emergency room. The emergency room physician diagnosed Nuber with a pulled muscle, and told him not to work, and to follow-up in a week. Nuber returned to the emergency room approximately a week later, where a different emergency room physician re-examined him, determined he was able to return to work, and discharged him. Importantly, neither physician was a specialist, such as an orthopedist or a neurologist, nor did the physicians perform or order any diagnostic testing.

The same day Nuber was discharged, he met the claims adjuster retained by Double J at a nearby gas station, who presented Nuber with a Receipt, Release, and Hold Harmless Agreement. The adjuster read and explained the terms of the Release to Nuber, who had only a 10th grade education. Nuber said he understood and agreed with the terms, and executed the Release without consulting an attorney or another physician.

Nuber returned to full duty work the next day, but a month later he started experiencing back pain again. Double J placed him on light duty and offered for him to be examined by an orthopedic surgeon. That surgeon diagnosed Nuber with herniated discs related to the March 8 incident and recommended surgery. Soon after, Nuber made demand on Double J for maintenance and cure benefits.

Double J filed a declaratory judgment to determine the enforceability of the Release, and later filed a summary judgment seeking an order to enforce the Release. However, Judge Martin Feldman denied the motion. Nuber was able to raise issues of material fact indicating he did not execute the Release freely with a full understanding of his rights. Judge Feldman pointed out that Nuber did not undergo any diagnostic testing at the hospital, and the emergency room physicians did not refer him to a specialist. Accordingly, Judge Feldman determined that Nuber may not have been informed or understood his rights in the nature of the legal and medical advice available to him. See also Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co.; Borne v. A&P Boat Rentals No. 4 Inc.

This point is one that is important for employers to take into account when trying to settle claims — has the seaman received adequate medical advice for the type of injury sustained so that he is informed and understands the consequences of signing a Release?

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently concluded that Jones Act seamen can recover punitive damages for their employer’s willful and wanton breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel, in McBride v. Estis Well Serv., L.L.C., No. 12 – 30714 (5th Cir. Oct. 2, 2013). The jurisprudential history behind this result resembles a slowly rebounding yo – yo that oscillates over a period of decades.

In 1981, the Fifth Circuit concluded that punitive damages may be recovered under the general maritime law upon a showing of willful and wanton misconduct by the ship owner in the creation or maintenance of unseaworthy conditions. In re Merry Shipping, Inc., 650 F.2d 622, 623 (5th Cir. Unit B 1981). However, the health of the Merry Shipping decision took a turn for the worse, starting with the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision of Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 27 (1990), in which the Supreme Court concluded that the pecuniary damages limitations under both the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104, and the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), 46 U.S.C. § 30301 et seq., likewise limited the damages recoverable by the seaman’s estate for wrongful death caused by the unseaworthiness of the vessel under the general maritime law. Although the recoverability of punitive damages was not before the Supreme Court, a plethora of intermediate appellate court decisions seized on the pecuniary damages limitation of the Miles decision for general maritime law claims involving seamen to conclude that punitive damages, which were clearly non – pecuniary, were likewise not recoverable under the general maritime law for vessel unseaworthiness.

The death of Merry Shipping was initially reported by the en banc Fifth Circuit in Guevara v. Maritime Overseas Corp., 59 F.3d 1496 (5th Cir. 1995) (en banc), which concluded that Miles effectively had overruled Merry Shipping and that punitive damages were not available under the general maritime law for willful nonpayment of maintenance and cure. Id. at 1513. In light of the Guevara decision, those few remaining doubtful jurists ultimately concluded that punitive damages were not available to a Jones Act seaman in an action for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law.

Fourteen years after Guevara, the Supreme Court, in Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009), restored the availability of punitive damages for maintenance and cure claims under the general maritime law. The Townsend Court reached this conclusion for two reasons:  (1) the general maritime cause of action for maintenance and cure preceded the enactment of the Jones Act and (2) punitive damages were an available remedy under the general maritime law when the Jones Act was enacted. Because the Jones Act did not expressly address either maintenance and cure or punitive damages, both remained available after its passage in 1920. Id. at 414 – 15. In so holding the Townsend court abrogated the Guevara decision.

Following the precedent of Townsend, the Fifth Circuit in McBride has completed this particular cycle of the punitive damages yo – yo and reinstated the holding of the 1981 Merry Shipping decision. Punitive damages are once again available to seamen who are injured or killed by the ship owner’s willful and wanton misconduct in creating an unseaworthy condition. McBride at 2 & 20. Or as the hapless villager tried to explain in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:  “But I’m not dead yet!”

Oil Spill on the Mississippi River

The Coast Guard patrols a safety zone around a partially sunken barge. The motor vessel Tintomara and the tugboat Mel Oliver collided in the Mississippi River in New Orleans spilling approximately 419,286 gals.of number six fuel oil. 

 

(AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard – Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas M. Blue)

A judge’s recent decision on where legal liability lies for a maritime accident which released thousands of gallons of oil into the Mississippi River illustrates the benefits of being proactive in vetting operator quality when chartering vessels. The case involved a July 2008 collision near New Orleans between an oil barge and the vessel TINTOMARA. The collision damaged the ship and resulted in the barge splitting, sinking and spilling 282,000 gallons of oil into the river. The oil barge and her tug were both owned by American Commercial Lines (ACL). However, ACL had bareboat chartered its tug to DRD Towing, who in turn time chartered the tug back to ACL.

In Gabarick, et al. v. Laurin Maritime (America) Inc., et al., Case No. 08-04007, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana found that the collision was caused solely by the negligence and statutory violations of the tug, for which DRD was liable. The owners of the TINTOMARA argued that ACL also was at fault because it failed to exercise proper control over DRD, which allegedly had a bad safety record. While the Court suggested that ACL’s liability could be premised on proof that ACL knowingly placed an unsafe vessel into the hands of an unsafe operator and such placement caused the collision, the Court found that the shipowner failed to meet its burden of proof on this issue.

Instead, the Court found that ACL’s vetting of DRD’s licensing, accident history and compliance with the Federal 12-hour watch rule, while imperfect, was nonetheless reasonable. There was evidence that DRD was involved in 17 accidents in the 18 months leading up to the collision and that ACL reviewed the accidents involving its vessels in order to determine the need for corrective action. ACL’s oversight also included a management audit of DRD, as well as quarterly meetings. These actions never revealed evidence that DRD was either using unlicensed operators or working crews in violation of the 12-hour watch rule.  However, the Court specifically found evidence that DRD concealed this information from ACL, and held that ACL was not accountable for such concealment. Based on these findings, the Court dismissed the TINTOMARA’s claims against ACL, and ordered DRD to pay ACL all of its stipulated recoverable damages, plus interest and costs.

Screening Critical
The case serves as a reminder that screening chartered vessels and their operators for quality and safety, and including and adhering to quality and safety standards in time charters, can reap benefits both in protecting against accidents and defending the charterer from legal liability if accidents occur.