By Tod J. Everage

Recently, the US Fifth Circuit addressed three maritime tenets in the same case: McCorpen defense, unseaworthiness, and regulatory governance. While these issues can be rather straightforward in the typical case, the facts in Thomas v. Hercules Offshore Services, LLC (5th Cir. March 2, 2018) provided an interesting review of each. The specific issues addressed in this case were: (1) whether OSHA regulations are preempted by Coast Guard regulations on an “uninspected” MODU; (2) whether a raised doorsill constituted a negligent or unseaworthy condition by creating a tripping hazard; and (3) whether a McCorpen defense can be made when the employee passed a pre-employment physical.

Plaintiff was a galley hand employed by Hercules on the HERCULES 264, a mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU). She tripped on the raised doorsill leading out of the bathroom, measuring two inches high and approximately three inches wide. Plaintiff sued in the Middle District of Louisiana alleging negligence under the Jones Act, unseaworthiness under general maritime law, and a claim for maintenance and cure benefits. Hercules began paying M&C from the date Plaintiff’s injury was reported. Hercules eventually filed two dispositive motions addressing its liability and asserting a McCorpen defense; the district court granted both motions.

The first issue on appeal was whether the MDLA erred in holding that the HERCULES 264 was an inspected vessel, such that OSHA regs were preempted by the Coast Guard CFR’s. Plaintiff insisted that the MODU was an uninspected vessel. In Chao v. Mallard Bay Drilling, 534 US 235 (2002), the US Supreme Court held that inspected vessels were governed by Coast Guard regulations, which preempt OSHA regulations; on uninspected vessels though, OSHA is not preempted. In 46 USC § 3301(1)-(15), Congress clearly set forth a list of 15 types of vessels that are deemed inspected vessels – MODUs are not on that list. Hercules argued that though the HERCULES 264 was not an inspected vessel under the statute, the Coast Guard had issued a Certificate of Compliance and a Report of Inspection for the HERCULES 264, making it an “inspected” vessel.

Hercules also argued that the Coast Guard regs preempt OSHA regs on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), where the HERCULES 264 was drilling. Specifically, the Coast Guard had promulgated regulations respecting the design and equipment standards for MODUs, including the construction of accommodation spaces on those units. See 46 CFR § 108.197. The regs also address design requirements of wash spaces, toilet spaces, and shower spaces. See 46 CFR § 108.205. Citing back to Mallard Bay Drilling, the 5th Circuit was persuaded by the Coast Guard’s promulgation of these regulations as an exercise of the Coast Guard’s authority sufficient to preempt OSHA regulations. Thus, the HERCULES 246 would be treated as an inspected vessel and the Coast Guard regulations would apply.

The second issue was whether the HERCULES 264 was unseaworthy for having raised doorsills, creating tripping hazards. After affirming the district court’s ruling that Plaintiff had failed to present any evidence that the raised doorsill created an unsafe condition, the Court concluded that it also did not make the HERCULES 264 unseaworthy. Notably, the design of the doorsill did not violate any applicable Coast Guard regulation. In fact, certain regulations actually called for higher doorsills than the two-inch one Plaintiff had tripped over. This fact alone was sufficient to dismiss Plaintiff’s negligence and unseaworthy claims.

The last issue addressed Hercules’s successful McCorpen defense. McCorpen is the US 5th Circuit’s longstanding shield against fraudulent claims for Maintenance and Cure. It allows a Jones Act employer to terminate its M&C obligation when the employee has willfully concealed a preexisting medical condition. The three prongs of defense are: (1) the seaman intentionally misrepresented or concealed medical facts; (2) the nondisclosed facts were material to the employer’s decision to hire the seaman; and (3) there is a link between the withheld information and the injury that is the subject of the complaint.

In her hiring process, Plaintiff filled out a medical questionnaire and underwent a pre-employment physical – which she passed with no restrictions. On her forms, she signed that she had never sustained any injury or sought medical attention for a physical problem. She also checked the boxes indicating she had never received treatment for any neck, back, or leg pain, among others. In her deposition though, she admitted to two prior car accidents which required medical treatment for neck, back, and leg pain. This satisfied the first prong of McCorpen.

Next, the 5th Circuit rejected Plaintiff’s argument that passing the pre-employment FCE negated the materiality of her concealment. The 5th Circuit has consistently held that the materiality factor is satisfied if the employer asked specific questions about the relevant pre-existing injury on its application forms. Plaintiff’s ability to perform physical tasks at the time of hiring was irrelevant. As to the third factor, the 5th Circuit found a direct link between the concealed pre-existing injuries and the injuries complained about in this case. A Jones Act employer need not prove that that the prior injuries are the sole causes of the current injuries; nor do the present injuries have to be identical. Here, Hercules showed that Plaintiff had received months of medical treatment for neck, back and leg pain after each of her previous car accidents, and reported pain in those same areas after her fall on the HERCULES 264. Therefore, the 5th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling on this issue as well.

Despite this finding, Plaintiff was entitled to keep the more than $44,000 she received in Maintenance benefits prior to the district court’s ruling. Though it may be difficult pre-suit, Jones Act employers should immediate begin investigating their employee’s injury claims with an eye towards supporting a McCorpen defense, if available; especially, if the potential cure exposure is significant.