By Daniel Stanton

Among the various duties that Jones Act employers are charged with is the duty to provide its seamen with reasonable medical care.  In a recent decision from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Randle v. Crosby Tugs, L.L.C., the Court considered the extent of this duty and how it may be satisfied.  The plaintiff was employed by Crosby aboard its vessel, the M/V DELTA FORCE.  While the plaintiff was loading aboard the vessel, he began to feel lightheaded and fatigued.  He retired to his cabin to rest and was later discovered incapacitated on the cabin by another crewmember.  The crewmember immediately notified the captain who called 911.

An ambulance raced to the scene and then transported plaintiff to Teche Regional Medical Center.  At Teche Regional, plaintiff’s attending physicians failed to diagnose plaintiff’s condition as a stroke as a result of failing to perform the proper diagnostic testing.  Having failed to diagnose plaintiff’s condition as a stroke, the physicians of Teche Regional failed to administer medications that would have improved plaintiff’s port-stroke recovery in time.  As a result of his stroke, plaintiff is permanently disabled and requires constant care.  Plaintiff sued Crosby and alleged, among other things, that Crosby failed to provide him with prompt and adequate medical care.  The district court granted Crosby’s motion for summary judgment on this claim, dismissing it, and the plaintiff appealed.  Plaintiff argued on appeal that his fellow seaman owed him more than merely calling 911 and that Crosby was vicariously liable for the acts of the physicians at Teche Regional.

Evaluating plaintiff’s first argument, the Court noted that the extent of a ship owner’s duty to provide prompt and adequate care depends on the circumstances of each case, the nature of the injury, and the relative availability of medical facilities.  This duty can be breached when a vessel owner fails to get a crewman to a doctor when it is reasonably necessary and the vessel can reasonably do so or if the vessel owner takes the seaman to a doctor it knows is not qualified to provide the necessary care.  With these obligations in mind, the Court considered the actions of Crosby after plaintiff was discovered.  Plaintiff was suffering from an unknown but clearly urgent medical condition, and the act of calling 911 was reasonably calculated to get plaintiff to a facility that could treat him.  Plaintiff did not dispute that, absent the misdiagnosis, Teche Regional would have been capable of treating his condition, and the plaintiff testified himself that his “instinct” would have been to call 911 as well under the circumstances.  The Court found that Crosby acted reasonably under the circumstances, when presented with an unknown but emergency medical condition, and therefore, no liability could attach.

Plaintiff also argued that Crosby should be vicariously liable for the alleged malpractice of the Teche Regional physicians.  Shipowners may be held liable for injuries negligently inflicted upon its employees.  This responsibility includes injuries suffered at the hands of a shipowner’s agents, including shipboard physicians or on-shore physicians that it chooses for the treatment of its employees.  But, a shipowner shall bear no responsibility for the treatment an injured employee receives from a physician of his own choosing.  Here, plaintiff argued that Crosby’s non-delegable duty to provide adequate medical care also included vicarious liability for the acts of the Teche Regional physicians even though Crosby neither employed, nor chose to send plaintiff to Teche Regional.  The Court found that this argument stretched beyond the limits of the law of agency, and while a principle may become liable for the failure of its agent to perform a non-delegable duty to a third party, there must first be an agent to whom such a duty was entrusted.  In the instant case, no such agency relationship exists.  Crosby did nothing to initiate any agency relationship with Teche Regional.  Crosby did not contract with Teche Regional for the plaintiff’s care; it did not direct the ambulance to take plaintiff to Teche Regional; and it likely did not even know why plaintiff was taken to Teche Regional instead of another facility.  In short, plaintiff produced no evidence that Crosby intended for Teche Regional to act as its agent by simply dialing 911.

Having considered and dismissed both of plaintiff’s arguments, the Court affirmed the summary judgment granted in favor of Crosby by the district court.

In light of the Court’s opinion, Jones Act employers should carefully consider their procedures for handling shipboard medical treatment needs for both emergency and non-emergency situations.  Jones Act employers must ensure that their policies and procedures satisfy their obligations to their employees but avoid incurring unexpected liability for the actions of medical professionals.