The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has unequivocally held that a shipowner-employer may pursue a claim for reimbursement of costs for damage to property against its negligent seaman-employee. Withhart v. Otto Candies, 431 F.3d 840 (5th Cir. 2005). The seaman-employee in Witthart was a mate, or relief captain, who allegedly left the wheel house to attend to personal business while in command of the vessel. During his absence, the vessel, navigating through congested waters with no captain at the helm, collided with and damaged another vessel.
The owner of the vessel under the command of the phantom captain, faced with a property damage suit exceeding $26,000.00, filed a counterclaim asserting negligence against its employee for leaving the wheelhouse while on watch. The district court dismissed the counterclaim and the employer filed an appeal. The Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal of the shipowner’s counterclaim against its seaman employee for property damage, recognizing a cause of action against the seaman sounding in negligence under the general admiralty law.
The Fifth Circuit recognized that no statutory provision in the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), or in the Jones Act, prohibits a shipowner-employer from pursuing a claim against its negligent seaman-employee for property damage. The Court addressed the fact that Congress did not specifically enumerate the rights of seamen in the Jones Act, but extended to them the same rights granted to railway employees under FELA. The Court indicated that every other federal court to address this issue has concluded that FELA does not deprive an employer of its common law right to sue its employees for property damage caused by the employees.
The Court acknowledged that the purpose of the Jones Act is to “benefit and protect seamen by enlarging, not narrowing, the remedies available to them,” but added that, “permitting a shipowner-employer to sue its seamen-employee for property damage arising out of the seaman-employee’s negligence will not narrow the remedies available to seamen-employees under the Jones Act.” Further, the Court pronounced that the difficult working conditions prong of the seaman’s due care analysis does not exist to shield seamen from liability for their negligence merely because a seaman may work under difficult conditions.