Naquin v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C., — F.3d —, 2014 WL 917053, No. 12-31258 (5th Cir. Mar. 10, 2014)

(Davis and Milazzo, J.; Jones, J. dissenting)

In a decision that will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on marine insurers and their shipyard insureds, a divided panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit held that a vessel repair supervisor at a Houma shipyard qualifies as a Jones Act seaman.

Plaintiff, Larry Naquin, Sr., was employed as a vessel repair supervisor at his employer’s shipyard facility in Houma, Louisiana. Naquin was not assigned to a particular vessel but instead spent seventy percent of his time repairing, cleaning, painting and maintaining lift-boat vessels at the shipyard. Ordinarily, he worked aboard the lift-boats while they were moored, jacked up or docked in the shipyard canal. The remaining thirty percent of his time was spent working in the shipyard’s fabrication shop or operating the shipyard’s land-based crane.

On November 17, 2009, Naquin was operating the shipyard’s land-based crane, when the crane suddenly failed and toppled over onto a nearby building. Naquin himself was able to escape the crane house but not without sustaining a broken left foot, a severely broken right foot, and a lower abdominal hernia.

A jury held that Naquin was a Jones Act seaman and that EBI’s negligence caused his injury, awarding him $1,000,000 for past and future physical pain and suffering, $1,000,000 for past and future mental pain and suffering, and $400,000 for future lost wages. Elevating Boats (“EBI”) appealed, contending that Naquin was not a Jones Act seaman, that the district court provided erroneous seaman status jury instructions, that the evidence was insufficient to establish EBI’s negligence, and that the district court erred in admitting evidence of Naquin’s cousin’s husband’s death.

In a split decision, authored by Judge Eugene Davis and joined by Judge Milazzo, District Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana (sitting by designation), the U.S. Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment on seaman status and liability. It then vacated the damages award, due to the jury’s reliance on emotional anguish resulting from the death of a third party.

Despite EBI’s argument that ship repairmen are expressly included in the jobs listed in the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, the Fifth Circuit rejected this argument, noting that while the court had previously agreed with EBI’s position in Pizzitolo v. Electro-Coal Transfer Corp., 812 F.2d 977 (5th Cir. 1986), that decision was specifically overruled in this regard by the Supreme Court in Southwest Marine, Inc. v. Gizoni, 502 U.S. 81 (1991). Because Naquin’s work contributed to the function of EBI’s fleet of vessels, and because his connection to that fleet was substantial, the Fifth Circuit upheld the jury’s finding that Naquin was a Jones Act seaman, despite the fact that the vessels were usually docked, Naquin was not often exposed to the dangers of the sea, and he spent nearly every night in his own land-based home.

Judge Jones issued a strong dissent, opining that while Naquin’s work contributed to the function of a vessel, that his connection to the vessel(s) was not substantial. As noted by Judge Jones “if a jury could hold Naquin is a seaman, then it could so conclude as to any shore-based worker who maintained EBI’s on-board computers or went aboard the lift-boats to gas them up before they left the repair yard.” Judge Jones argued that the majority opinion did not properly interpret the concept of a “vessel in navigation” where Naquin was a dock worker who performed repairs to vessels at the dock. She points out that the majority’s conclusion is irreconcilable with the “basic point” in Chandris v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 368 (1997), that land-based employees are not seamen.

This opinion has significant implications for shipyard operators and the vessels they service, as the circuit courts continue to expand the definition of Jones Act seaman status.