Punitive Damages - US Eastern District Court HouseFollowing the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in McBride v. Estis Well Service, 768 F.3d 382, 391 (5th Cir. 2014), we reported that punitive damages had “expired and gone to meet their maker” when it comes to Jones Act seamen. As it turns out, they were only mostly dead. In Corey Hume et al. v. Consolidated Grain & Barge, Inc. et al., No. CA 15-0935, 2016 WL 1089349, at *1 (E.D. La. Mar. 21, 2016), Judge Zainey of the Eastern District ruled that punitive damages are still recoverable by Jones Act seamen against non-employer third parties.

The Plaintiffs, who were employees of defendant Consolidated Grain, were working aboard a vessel owned by defendant Quality Marine Services when a running wire of the vessel struck each of them in the face and head, resulting in brain injuries and facial disfigurement. The Plaintiffs sued Quality Marine for punitive damages under general maritime law. Quality Marine moved to dismiss, arguing that, pursuant to McBride v. Estis Well Service, 768 F.3d 382, 391 (5th Cir. 2014) (en banc), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 2310 (2015) (which held that an injured seaman cannot recover punitive damages against his employer), and Scarborough v. Clemco Industries, 391 F.3d 660, 668 (5th Cir. 2004) (which held that a seaman who invokes Jones Act status cannot recover punitive damages against a non-employer third party), Plaintiffs were not able under general maritime law to recover punitive damages from Quality Marine.

The court disagreed. Relying on another recent decision from the Eastern District, Collins v. A.B.C. Marine Towing, L.L.C., 14-1900, 2015 WL 5254710 (E.D. La. Sept. 9, 2015), the court declined to follow the Fifth Circuit’s holding in Scarborough, finding Scarborough had been “effectively overruled” by the Supreme Court in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 U.S. 404 (2009). The court held instead that the Jones Act forecloses a seaman’s recovery for non-pecuniary loss in maritime cases only with respect to his employer. With respect to a non-employer tortfeasor such as Quality Marine, to whom the Jones Act does not apply, no statutory regime exists that conflicts with general maritime law remedies, and thus punitive damages may be recoverable. In the end, the court held that the “takeaway from Townsend” was that a seaman may recover punitive damages under general maritime law if the Jones Act is not implicated, and denied Quality Marine’s motion to dismiss the punitive damages claim.

On March 10, 2016, I reported on the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Petrobras America, Inc., et al. v. Vicinay Cadenas S.A., No. 14-20589 (03/07/16), where the Fifth Circuit addressed the waivability of OCSLA’s choice of law provision and determined that it could never be waived. The appellee, Vicinay Cadenas, S.A., has now petitioned for a rehearing en banc and asserts the decision conflicts with the Court’s prior holding of In Re HECI Expl. Co., 862 F.2d 513 (5th Cir. 1988) holding that choice of law – even if mandated by a statutory provision that cannot be overridden by the parties’ agreement – is non-jurisdictional and thus subject to waiver. The appellee also urges that the decision threatens to impair the efficient administration of justice by placing a statutorily-prescribed choice of law provision on par with subject matter jurisdiction, thereby requiring continual reconsideration of the issue regardless of whether it was ever timely raised. A majority of the Court’s judges must now vote that the matter deserves an en banc rehearing for the appeal to move forward.

OCSLA Choice of Law - Petrobras v. Vicinay CadenasThis week The United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Petrobras America, Inc., et al. v. Vicinay Cadenas, S.A., No. 14-20589 (03/07/16) addressed in further detail whether the choice of law provision under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) can be waived in any context. Prior to this decision, the Fifth Circuit had established that OCSLA’s choice of law scheme was prescribed by Congress and parties could not voluntarily contract around Congress’s mandate. Texaco Exploration & Production, Inc. v. AmClyde Engineered Prods. Co., Inc., 448 F.3d 760, 772 n. 8 (5th Cir., 2006); see also Union Tex. Petroleum Corp. v. PLT Eng’g, Inc., 895 F.2d 1043, 1050 (5th Cir. 1990) (“We find it beyond any doubt that OCSLA is itself a Congressionally-mandated choice of law provision requiring that the substantive law of the adjacent state is to apply even in the presence of a choice of law provision in the contract to the contrary.”)

In this instance neither party had asserted that the issues before the district court were to be determined according to the law of the adjacent state, Louisiana, asserting, to the contrary, that maritime law was controlling. It was only after a motion for partial summary judgment was granted against the plaintiff based on applying admiralty law that the plaintiff asserted OCSLA required the application of the law of Louisiana.

In the case at hand, Petrobras America sued Vicinay Cadenas, S.A., the manufacturer of an underwater tether chain that broke just after being installed. The chain secured a pipeline system for oil production from the Outer-Continental Shelf of the Gulf of Mexico. Petrobras had contracted with Technip U.S.A., Inc. to construct five “free-standing hybrid riser” systems to move crude oil from wellheads on the sea bed to floating production storage and off-loading facilities on the surface of the sea. Technip had subcontracted with Vicinay to supply the chains that were specified to be without weld-over cracks and defects to be used to tether the riser systems. Shortly after the chains were installed, one broke causing loss of one of the free-standing hybrid riser systems, a loss of use of the oil storage facility and loss oil and gas production.

Petrobras and its underwriters sued Vicinay in federal court asserting negligence, product liability and failure to warn claims. They alleged subject matter jurisdiction based on admiralty law or, alternatively, under OCSLA. They did not assert that Louisiana law applied. Vicinay moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that it was entitled to prevail under the maritime law’s economic loss doctrine announced in East River Steamship Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S. 858, 106 S. Ct. 2295 (1986).

While opposing Vicinay’s motion for partial summary judgment, Petrobras and its underwriters did not contest the application of maritime law. The district court, assuming that maritime law applied, granted summary judgment to Vicinay to which an interlocutory appeal was filed. Approximately two months later, Petrobras’ underwriters filed a motion for leave to amend their complaint asserting for the first time that Louisiana law, not maritime law, applied to this dispute under OCSLA. This was denied by the district court and the appeal of this ruling was consolidated with the previous interlocutory appeals.

Vicinay argued before the Fifth Circuit that Petrobras’ underwriters waived their choice of law argument by not raising it in the district court until the eleventh hour motion to amend their complaint which was filed after the summary judgment was granted. They asserted that the underwriters confused OCSLA’s subject matter jurisdiction conferred on federal courts in 43 U.S.C. § 1349(b)(1)(A) and which cannot be waived, with OCSLA’s choice of law 43 U.S.C. § 1333(a) which allegedly could be waived, and therefore could not be raised for the first time on appeal.

Noting that the court’s precedents firmly established that OCSLA’s choice of law could not be waived by contract, as it was prescribed by Congress and parties may not voluntarily contract around Congress’ mandate, the court determined that, even more so, the choice of law provision could not be waived by failure to raise the issue below. This was found to be distinguishable from the Court’s earlier holding in Fruge v. Amerisure Mutual Insurance Co., 663 F.3d 743, 777 (5th Cir. 2011). It was explained that the failure to raise an issue as to the choice of law analysis in Fruge stemmed from a contractual provision, and since it was not timely raised before the district court, it was waived. In the instant case, the choice of law provision was one that stemmed from a statutorily mandate and could not be waived under any circumstances.

File the Limitation ComplaintOn December 3, 2014, the Fifth Circuit, in In re:  RLB Contracting, Inc., No. 14–40326 (5th Cir. Dec. 3, 2014), concluded that an ongoing exchange of correspondence between counsel for a dredge involved in a maritime casualty and counsel for the wrongful death and personal injury claimants satisfied both prongs of the “reasonable possibility” test for written notice of a claim and thereby began the six month statutory period for the dredge owner to have filed its complaint for exoneration and/or limitation of liability. These issues have been previously explored in this Blog in 2012 and in 2013.

To satisfy the “reasonable possibility” test sufficiently to start the six month period, the correspondence to the vessel owner (or its counsel) must convey a “reasonable possibility” that a potential claim exists and a “reasonable possibility” that the amount of the claim might exceed the value of the vessel. The court observed that no magical language is necessary and that the vessel owner, not the dead or injured claimants, bears the risk in the event of a wrong guess or a tactical error.

It should be noted that from a procedural perspective, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment of dismissal under the de novo standard. The failure to timely file the Limitation Complaint is a jurisdictional defect, subject to de novo review, even though the “reasonable possibility” inquiries are fact–intensive and based on the circumstances of the case. Because the district court considered matters outside of the pleadings, it had applied a summary judgment procedure in its analysis of the correspondence exchanged between counsel. Summary judgments likewise are subject to a de novo standard. For good measure, the Fifth Circuit concluded that its review of the record did not reveal any dispute of material fact and thus summary judgment was procedurally proper.

Vessel owners should take note: the correspondence from claimants’ counsel is sufficient to start the six month period to file a limitation complaint, regardless of when the claimants ultimately decide to file suit. Once more, we stress what by now should be obvious – when in doubt, file the complaint for limitation.

With increasing frequency, parties to charters and other maritime contracts are including so-called Designated Entity Clauses or “OFAC” provisions. These clauses have the aim of complying with sanction programs such those administered by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) or multi-national organizations such as the European Union or United Nations. But, do the provisions truly offer any protection?

Designated Entity Clauses typically include:

  • representations and warranties that the parties are not subject to sanctions and are not Designated Entities;
  • covenants not to subcharter the vessel to Designated Entities or otherwise involve the vessel in sanctioned activities;
  • covenants to comply with applicable law and orders or directives of competent authorities in the event that one party becomes aware that the other party (or a subcharterer or other person doing business with the vessel) is a Designated Entity or otherwise acting in violation of a sanctions program; and
  • the right of a non-breaching party to terminate the contract and direct the vessel to a safe port for offloading of cargo, equipment or personnel.

Earlier this year, BIMCO issued standard wording for this type of clause. Similar provisions now also routinely appear in marine financing documents. In some cases, including the BIMCO clause, they require indemnification of the non-breaching party for any fines, penalties, losses or damages suffered as a result of the breaching party’s violation. Despite their increasing use, however, these types of clauses have some inherent issues.

One clear difficulty of the indemnity provision is that if a party proves to be a Designated Entity, recovery of an indemnity claim from that entity likely would itself be precluded by the sanctions program. Also, irrespective of the terms of the contract, if a party deals with a Designated Entity, they are liable for penalties if they knew or should have known of that party’s status as a Designated Entity. For example, under OFAC regulations, when a person or entity is designated, then no person in the United States can deal with that Designated Entity without a license from OFAC. Prohibitions on dealing with Designated Entities encompass not only situations in which a person has direct knowledge that he is acting in violation of a sanction program, but also situations in which he has “reason to know” that is the case. [See e.g., Office of Foreign Assets Control, Iranian Transactions Regulation, Guidance on Transshipments to Iran] Whether one has a “reason to know” is determined from circumstantial evidence that may consist of the course of dealing, general knowledge of the industry or customer preferences, working relationships between the parties or other criteria. In this context, incorporating a designated entity clause may be viewed as a mitigating factor, but it does not shield the innocent party from liability.

Including Designated Entity provisions in maritime contracts is good practice insofar as it heightens the contracting parties’ awareness of their obligations to comply with sanctions programs. However, one should not believe that doing so will insulate them from liability to governmental authorities or from loss or damage. There is no substitute for conducting proper due diligence on the other contracting party. This includes searching sanction program databases as well as other online resources, and consulting with references and/or other persons who have or may have done business with the party. The bottom line remains the same: Know who you are dealing with before you sign the contract.

Don’t forget to include insurers when negotiating members of indemnified groups in master service agreements.

How many insureds entering into a master service agreement (“MSA”) go to bat for their insurers when negotiating who will compromise the members of their respective indemnified “Groups?” Given a recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (“Fifth Circuit”), Duval v. Northern Assurance Company of America, __ F.3d __, 2013 WL 3367483 (5th Cir. July 5, 2013) (“Duval”), parties to an MSA should add their insurers to the long list of third parties that make up the indemnified “Groups.” In Duval, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the insurers of a party to an MSA were not entitled to enforce their insured’s defense, indemnification, and/or insurance rights under indemnity provisions of the MSA at issue.

Duval arose from injuries sustained by Glenn Duval, an employee of Wood Group/Deepwater Specialists (“Wood Group”), during an offshore personnel basket transfer from a vessel owned by Deep Marine Technologies, Inc. (“Deep Marine”) to a tension-leg platform. Wood Group was a contractor of BHP Billiton Petroleum Deepwater, Inc. (“BHP”). The MSA between BHP and Deep Marine contained reciprocal indemnity obligations and required each party to support their respective indemnity obligations with liability insurance, self-insurance, or a combination thereof. Under the MSA at issue, BHP was the “Company” and Deep Marine was the “Contractor.” Plaintiff Duval filed suit against Deep Marine and others, but not BHP, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana (“District Court”).

After being served with the Complaint, Deep Marine sought defense, indemnity, and an additional insured status from BHP under the MSA. BHP accepted Deep Marine’s tender, as the Wood Group was a member of the “Company Group.” While the suit was pending, and more than one year after BHP accepted Deep Marine’s tender, Deep Marine filed a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy proceeding in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The plaintiff, Duval, moved to lift the automatic stay to proceed with his case against Deep Marine’s insurers, which was granted.  Plaintiff Duval amended the Complaint and named Deep Marine’s insurers as defendants under Louisiana’s Direct Action Statute. Deep Marine’s insurers then filed a Third-Party Complaint against BHP seeking defense, indemnity, and insurance coverage in accordance with the MSA. Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment were filed between Deep Marine’s insurers and BHP, and the District Court granted BHP’s Motion for Summary Judgment, and denied Deep Marine’s insurers’ Motion for Summary Judgment. The District Court ruled that BHP was not obligated under the MSA at issue to provide Deep Marine’s insurers with defense, indemnity, and insurance coverage because, among other reasons, Deep Marine’s insurers were not among the long list of parties compromising who was part of the “Contractor Group,” an indemnitee under the MSA at issue.

On appeal, Deep Marine’s insurers put forth several arguments in favor of their interpretation of the MSA at issue. The Fifth Circuit, however, did not find any of the insurers’ arguments compelling. The Fifth Circuit rejected each of the arguments advanced by Deep Marine’s insurers, and affirmed the judgment of the District Court, as follows:

  1. BHP did not waive defenses to Deep Marine insurers’ claims under the MSA by initially accepting Deep Marine’s tender prior to Deep Marine’s bankruptcy filing.
  2. Deep Marine’s insurers could not recover under the indemnity provisions of the MSA at issue because the Contractor Group did not include insurers. The Fifth Circuit reasoned that if the parties to the MSA at issue intended to include their insurers as beneficiaries of the indemnity provision of the MSA at issue, they could have expressly done so as other parties have done in other MSAs.
  3. Deep Marine insurers argued that they stepped into the shoes of the subrogor, Deep Marine, once payment is made. The Fifth Circuit disagreed because the insurers could not recover from BHP absent a loss by Deep Marine in Duval, and Plaintiff Duval’s claims against Deep Marine were stayed indefinitely due to the bankruptcy proceeding.
  4. Relying on Texas law, the Fifth Circuit also found that BHP’s primary million dollar “self-insurance” did not confer additional insured status to the insurers as “the term ‘self-insurance’ is a misnomer” because “in effect, a self-insurer does not provide insurance at all.”
  5. Although Deep Marine’s insurers were correct that Deep Marine’s bankruptcy does not discharge the debt of any third party, including BHP, as the Fifth Circuit noted, the Plaintiff Duval did not assert any liability against BHP.

The Fifth Circuit’s decision was based heavily on the language of the MSA at issue, and the posture of Duval. In order to attempt to avoid the same outcome, and to protect insurers, parties to an MSA need to include their insurers as members of the respective indemnified “Groups.” Parties drafting contracts should be familiar with Duval, so, during the negotiating phase, parties can support their rationale when drafting indemnity and insurance provisions of MSAs to include their insurers as members of the indemnified “Groups.”

An often contentious issue in maritime litigation involving both personal injury and property damage is whether the wheelman in charge of a towing vessel that exceeds 26′ violated the so-called “twelve-hour rule.” According to 46 U.S.C. § 8104(h), “an individual licensed to operate a towing vessel may not work for more than 12 hours in a consecutive 24-hour period except in an emergency.” It is important for a company to make sure its wheelmen understand how investigators clock a 24-hour period, and what the courts consider “work.”

To provide guidance to summarize and clarify the work-hour limitations for licensed operators, the United States Coast Guard (“USCG”) issued a policy letter, G-MOC Policy Letter 4-00, Rev-1According to the USCG, except in emergencies, a licensed operator of a towing vessel “may not work in excess of 12 hours in any consecutive twenty-four (24) hour period.” The Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, interpreting the language of the statute, as well as the USCG Policy Letter, has held that in determining whether the 12-hour rule was violated “the countdown starts from the time the injury occurred, going back 24 hours.” Mercer v. Chem Carriers LLC, 790 F. Supp.2d 478, 481 (E.D. La. 2011)(relying on language, i.e. “Up to the time of the collision”, used by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Archer Daniels Midland Co. v. M/V Freeport, 909 F.2d 809, 810-11 (5th Cir. 1990)).

Though the term “work” is not defined by statute or regulation, the term “rest” has been defined as “a period of time during which the person concerned is off duty, is not performing work (which includes administrative tasks such as chart corrections or preparation of port-entry documents), and is allowed to sleep without being interrupted….” 46 CFR § 15.1101(a)(4). Given the definition of “rest,” it might be difficult for companies to keep track of whether their wheelmen are adhering to the 12-hour rule. Most towing companies establish six hour watch-keeping policies aboard their vessels. That is, crew members work six hours on-watch and six hours off-watch. Most wheelmen record the times they go on-watch and off-watch in the vessel’s log. But what a wheelman does after his relief comes on watch could be just as important.

Indeed, if a wheelman spends his entire six hour watch behind the “wheel” and then spends 30 to 40 minutes instructing or helping other crewmembers and/or tankering barges, one can see where the 12-hour rule might be violated. Another consideration to take in to account is whether travel time to and from the vessel would be included in the definition of “work.” Thus, all activities of a “licensed operator” could be considered by a USCG officer investigating an incident or a court in determining whether a wheelman is compliant with the “12-hour rule.” Because a wheelman’s “work” schedule may be different than his watch schedule, it may be wise for companies to implement policies that a wheelman mark down the time period he is off-duty, i.e., at “rest.”

Resources: 46 U.S.C. § 8104 – Watches G-MOC Policy Letter 4-00, Rev-1

 

The Fifth Circuit has followed the Fourth Circuit’s lead in deciding today that an employee’s termination for misconduct will not reopen a disability claim under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (“LHWCA”).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in an unpublished opinion issued on March 19, 2013, addressed the employer’s burden under the LHWCA to show suitable alternative employment where an employee is left with a residual disability to a nonscheduled portion of his body after a work-related injury (Cox v. Dir., OWCP, et al., No. 12-60180). In rebuffing the claimant’s appeal of the denial of his benefits by the Administrative Law Judge, the court reiterated its holding in Darby v. Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc., 99F.3d 685 (5th Cir. 1996), that an employer can discharge its burden of showing suitable employment when an injured employee is disabled from returning to his pre-injury job by offering a different but suitable job at his current place of work. The court also cited Fourth Circuit case law, Brooks v. Dir, OWCP, 2F.3d 64,65 (4th Cir. 1993), that if the claimant thereafter losses the substitute employment due to his own misconduct, any subsequent loss in his wage earning capacity is not compensable under the Act as it does not result from a work-related accident.

In this instance the employer had sent a written offer of a job suited to the claimant’s limitation to medium duty work with restrictions on lifting, pushing and pulling to both the claimant and his attorney by certified mail. Although the claimant failed to claim the certified letter, it was delivered to his attorney. When the claimant failed to report to work as required in the offer he was terminated in accordance with the employer’s policy and the applicable union contract.