Offshore oil rig drilling platform in the gulf of Thailand 2015.

By Daniel B. Stanton

In the recent U.S. Fifth Circuit case of In re Larry Doiron, Inc., 849 F.3d 602 (5th Cir. 2017), the Court considered an often pivotal question in many offshore personal injury cases: is the contract governing the relationship of the parties a maritime contract?

While this issue is not new to the offshore oil and gas industry, it is often one that is hotly contested because of the impacts that follow the determination that a contract is maritime in nature or not. One of the most significant issues resting on this determination is the enforceability of the indemnity provisions which are often included in service contracts. Under general maritime law, indemnity provisions are generally enforceable; under Louisiana law, indemnity provisions are often unenforceable as a result of the Louisiana Oilfield Indemnity Act (“LOIA”). Thus the determination that a contract is maritime in nature, and therefore governed by general maritime law, can have a significant impact on the relationship between the parties to an offshore personal injury action.

In this case, Plaintiff Peter Savoie, an employee of Specialty Rental Tools & Supply (“STS”), was injured while performing flow-back services on an offshore natural-gas well owned by Apache. Savoie’s services were provided under a master services contract (“MSC”) between Apache and STS which contained a common indemnity provision that required STS to defend and indemnify Apache and its “Company Group” from all claims for bodily injury made by STS employees. Like most service contracts, the MSC operated as a broad blanket agreement that did not describe individual tasks, but contemplated their performance under subsequent oral and written work orders.

Prior to his injury, Savoie attempted several different methods to complete the flow-back process on Apache’s well. After these methods proved unsuccessful, Savoie determined that additional equipment would be needed to perform the operation, including a hydraulic choke manifold, a flow-back iron, and a hydraulic gate valve. Because these pieces of equipment were too heavy to manipulate by hand, a crane barge would be required to move them to and from the wellhead. Apache’s on-site representative made arrangements to procure the necessary equipment. The crane barge was supplied by Larry Doiron, Inc. (“LDI”). Savoie was injured during the process of rigging down the LDI crane. When Savoie made a claim against LDI for his injuries, LDI demanded defense and indemnity from STS under the Apache/STS MSC. STS countered that the MSC was governed by Louisiana law, and as a result of the LOIA, the indemnity provisions of the MSC were rendered ineffective. No party disputed that LDI was part of the Apache “Company Group” to which the indemnity obligation flowed, and ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court found that the contract was maritime in nature and therefore STS was bound to defend and indemnify LDI. STS appealed the district court’s ruling.

The issue before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was simple: what law applied to the indemnity provision of the MSC, maritime law or Louisiana law? But to answer this question, the Court had to examine not only the MSC, but also the oral work order for the use of LDI’s crane barge. First, the Court looked to the MSC and asked the following question: how have contracts for flow-back services historically been treated by courts? Having not previously considered contracts for flow-back services, the Court compared the work to wireline and casing work. Under prior decisions of the Court, contracts for wireline work had traditionally been found to be non-maritime and contracts for casing had traditionally been found to be maritime. The distinction being that wireline services often do not require the use of a vessel, while casing work often does. The Court then considered the task at issue in the present case, flow-back work, and found that the work could be performed either exclusively from a well platform or could require a vessel. Thus based on historical precedent, it was unclear to the Court whether the contract for flow-back services was a maritime or non-maritime contract.

Because the historical treatment of the contract as maritime or non-maritime was unclear, the Court went on to consider the specific facts surrounding the work that produced the Plaintiff’s injury. The Court evaluated the events in light of six factors that were developed by the Court in Davis & Sons, Inc. v. Gulf Oil Corp., 919 F.2d 313 (5th Cir. 1990):

1) [W]hat does the specific work order in effect at the time of injury provide? 2) [W]hat work did the crew assigned under the work order actually do? 3) [W]as the crew assigned to work aboard a vessel in navigable waters[?] 4) [T]o what extent did the work being done relate to the mission of that vessel? 5) [W]hat was the principal work of the injured worker? and 6) [W]hat work was the injured worker actually doing at the time of injury?

Under this framework, the Court found 4 of the 6 factors supported a conclusion that the contract at issue was maritime in nature.

Under the first factor, neither party could produce any documents describing the work order under which the LDI crane barge was procured, but the Court found that the MSC did have language that contemplated the use of vessels to perform work thereunder. Therefore, because the use of vessels during STS’s work for Apache was contemplated by the parties, imposing a maritime obligation on STS should come as no surprise. Under the second factor, the Court found that because the flow-back operation could not be completed without the use of a vessel; this factor favored maritime status. The fourth and sixth factors likewise counseled towards a maritime contract. The Court found that the mission of the vessel at issue was solely the performance of STS’s flow-back work. Plaintiff was also injured by equipment affixed to the vessel – the crane.

Only the third and fifth factors gravitated towards a finding that the contract was not maritime in nature according to the Court. Under these factors, the Plaintiff was neither assigned to work aboard a vessel in navigation nor employed to perform maritime-related work.

Having worked through the applicable analysis, the Court found that the contract at issue – the specific work order for the performance of back-flow services under the MSC – was a maritime contract. As a result, LDI’s demand for defense and indemnity was valid and enforceable, and the district court properly granted judgment in favor of LDI.

While the contractual issues at play in offshore personal injury cases are often less flavorful than the tort issues, they can have substantial impacts nonetheless. With litigation costs rising and the potential for substantial damage awards, contractual defense and indemnity provisions offer very valuable protections to the parties. And while elsewhere in the world, the distinction between a maritime contract and a non-maritime contract may be inconsequential, in the Louisiana oil patch the determination can result in the nullification of these important and valuable protections. Furthermore, this determination may not be as simple as reading the choice of law provision or evaluating the governing service agreement. Fortunately, the Fifth Circuit continues to provide guidance for navigating the sticky issues that arise on the Outer Continental Shelf where maritime law, state law, vessels, seamen, production platforms, and production personnel all interact.