In the recent 2-1 decision of Knight v. Kirby Offshore Marine Pac., L.L.C, No. 19-30756, 2020 WL 7393534, at *1 (5th Cir. Dec. 17, 2020), the Fifth Circuit held that a Jones Act Seaman was contributorily negligent for his injuries when following the general orders of his superior. The Court analyzed the differences between general and specific orders for purposes of a seaman’s contributory negligence in emphasizing that a seaman must act with ordinary prudence when carrying out those orders, though the dissent disagreed with the majority. This is a case to watch.
Plaintiff was a seaman aboard a tugboat owned by Defendant. The tugboat housed a stern line to secure barges when entering and exiting ports. At one point, the line chafed, and the captain ordered Plaintiff and another crewmember to replace it. When the order was given, the weather conditions were adverse consisting of four-foot seas and winds of at least twenty miles per hour. After Plaintiff and the other crewmember removed the chafed line, they place it on the deck next to them. As they were installing the new one, Plaintiff stepped on the chafed line and injured his ankle.
Following a bench trial, the district court concluded that Defendant was negligent because the captain ordered the change of line during bad weather. However, the district court also concluded that Plaintiff himself was contributorily negligent as he failed to watch his footing while replacing the chafed line and failed to move the chafed line to a location where he would not have stepped on it. As a result, the district court assigned equal percentages of fault to each party.
Plaintiff appealed the district court’s decision contending that, as a matter of law, a Jones Act seaman may not be held contributorily negligent when carrying out an order. Plaintiff based his argument on the decision Williams v. Brasea, Inc., 497 F.2d 67 (5th Cir. 1974) in which the Fifth Circuit previously stated that “a seaman may not be contributorily negligent for carrying out orders that result in his own injury.”
Although that language appears clear, the majority determined that it was dicta, which does not have binding authority. Further, the majority surveyed the case law and made a distinction between specific and general orders for purposes of the contributory negligence of the seaman. A specific order is one that must be accomplished using a specific manner and method, leaving the seaman with no reasonable alternative to complete the assigned task. The Fifth Circuit applied a narrow interpretation of the dicta in Williams when stating that a “seaman may not be found contributorily negligent for carrying out a specific order from his superior.” In this case, the captain’s order to change the chafed line was one of a general nature. Thus, as a matter of law, the district court was not precluded from reducing Plaintiff’s award by his proportion of fault.
However, the dissent applied a broader interpretation in concluding that the district court ignored binding and longstanding precedent in Williams that seamen who are injured while following orders cannot be held contributorily negligent.
The narrower interpretation of the majority opinion appears to emphasize the duty of a seaman to act with ordinary prudence when carrying out his orders, particularly when receiving orders of general nature. This is a case to continue watching.