Admiralty and Maritime

By Tod J. Everage

Contractual indemnities are important and valuable in the oil patch. When they are enforceable, they have the potential to end litigation completely or at least the financial burden for a particularly well-positioned indemnitee. But, with “anti-indemnity” statutes in play in several jurisdictions (including Louisiana), the enforceability of these indemnity provisions rely (barring exceptions) on the application of general maritime law.

It is a common practice to select general maritime law as the governing law in any oilfield MSA – at least within the Fifth Circuit – but simply saying it applies doesn’t actually make it so. As a result, jurisprudential tests have emerged to determine what law actually applies to torts depending on where the incident occurred, as well as to the contracts themselves. When the services provided under the contract are obviously maritime in nature, such as a contract for vessel support services, there is little to dispute. But, especially when there is a high-dollar potential exposure riding on the enforceability of an indemnity obligation, there have been persuasive arguments made on both sides of the maritime vs. state law debate governing contracts for other, less obvious, oilfield services.

Most recently, the US Fifth Circuit addressed this dispute over plugging and abandoning services (“P&A work”) on three wells in coastal Louisiana waters in In re: Crescent Energy Services, No. 16-31214 (5th Cir. July 13, 2018). Crescent agreed, amongst other things, to provide three vessels to perform the work and to indemnify Carrizo against any claims for bodily injury, death, or damage to property. One of Crescent’s employees was injured on one of Carrizo’s fixed platforms during the P&A work, and unsurprisingly, Carrizo’s indemnity demand from the resulting claim was denied by Crescent under the Louisiana Oilfield Indemnity Act. The district court, applying the former Davis & Sons test, found the contract between Carrizo and Crescent to be a maritime contract and granted summary judgment in favor of Carrizo on its indemnity claim.

In January, the US Fifth Circuit pared down its maritime contract test (from Davis & Sons) to focus on only two factors: (1) “is the contract one to provide services to facilitate the drilling or production of oil and gas on navigable waters?” and (2) “does the contract provide or do the parties expect that a vessel will play a substantial role in the completion of the contract?” In re Larry Doiron, Inc., 879 F.3d 568, 576 (5th Cir. 2018). Both factors must be affirmed before maritime law may be applied to the contract.

On the first factor, Carrizo asserted a creative and ultimately successful argument that P&A work is “part of the total life cycle of oil and gas drilling.” Because plugging and abandoning a drilled well is part of the agreement with the State of Louisiana to get an initial permit to drill, the US Fifth Circuit was persuaded that the contract for P&A work involved “the drilling and production of oil and gas.” The Court then re-iterated its departure from Davis & Sons and its concern about where the incident occurred. In Doiron, the US Fifth Circuit stated: “The facts surrounding the accident are relevant to whether the worker was injured in a maritime tort, but they are immaterial in determining whether the workers’ employer entered into a maritime contract.” Doiron, 879 F.3d at 573-74. The US Fifth Circuit is “no longer concerned about whether the worker was on a platform or vessel.” Rather, the question is whether the contract concerned the drilling and production of oil and gas on navigable waters.

On this point, Crescent’s insurers argued that Doiron’s analysis on the P&A work resulted in inconsistencies with other Fifth Circuit precedents finding that torts occurring on and during the construction of fixed, offshore production platforms on the OCS are generally not governed by maritime law. Also, wireline work – which comprises much of the P&A work – had also traditionally been found to not be a maritime activity. The Court declined the invitation to review those OCSLA cases: “We are not concerned here with those OCSLA issues of whether to borrow state law as surrogate federal law, which leads to analyzing whether maritime law applies of its own force, which requires determining the historical treatment of certain contracts. We do need to analyze, though, whether this is a maritime contract. Doiron now controls that endeavor.” But these statements do not make clear whether the rejection of the OCSLA cases was because Crescent Energy Services is not an OCSLA case itself, or whether that distinction no longer has a difference in oil and gas contract review.

The Fifth Circuit then quoted commentary from Professor David W. Robertson discussing contract disputes on the OCS: “If the contract is a maritime contract, federal maritime law applies of its own force, and state law does not apply. If the contract calling for indemnity is not a maritime contract, the governing law will be adjacent-state law made surrogate federal law by OCSLA § 1333(a)(2)(A).” Why bring this up if the Court is ignoring OCSLA cases on the grounds of distinction? The Court doesn’t directly clarify. Instead, it said the reference was “to show that Davis previously and Doiron now are performing the task of determining how to classify contracts.” It further stated that Davis (a Louisiana waters case) did not offend OCSLA cases, so neither does Doiron.

The Fifth Circuit seemed concerned about this argument though and the perception of the Court’s abandonment of long-standing precedent. Surely, this will be the continued topic of attack from potential indemnitors. In addressing those criticisms, the Court stuck with its more back-to-basics theme: “We are here classifying a contract for a certain purpose, a juridical activity that has been done consistently with the 1969 Rodrigue decision at least since our 1990 Davis decision. We en banc eliminated most of the factors, narrowing our focus, but we did not fundamentally change the task. Doiron is the law we must apply.” On the one hand, the Court’s statements seem to firmly reiterate that Doiron is the law going forward when analyzing the maritime nature of a contract regardless of the location of the work. But, the Court’s avoidance of the OCSLA issues and the narrowed “certain purpose” of their decision begs for more direct guidance from the Fifth Circuit on Doiron’s geographic reach.

The Fifth Circuit could have unequivocally proclaimed that the breadth of Doiron extended to OCSLA cases, in whatever capacity, if that were its intent; but it did not. So then, what is the expected effect of Doiron on those contract cases involving a controversy on the OCS, where OCSLA statutorily provides its own choice-of-law provision? Does Doiron actually supplant Grand Isle Shipyard, Inc. v. Seacor Marine, LLC, 589 F.3d 778 (5th Cir. 2009), since it called the case “un-useful” to its task? If the situs of the controversy is no longer appropriate, then it seems that Doiron may be the answer.

Grand Isle was a contractual application of test articulated in Union Texas Petroleum Corp. v. PLT Engineering, Inc., 895 F.2d 1043 (5th Cir. 1990) which starts by finding that the dispute arises on the OCS; otherwise, now, Doiron surely is the test. The second PLT factor determines whether the OCSLA choice-of-law provision applies by looking to see if federal maritime law applies of its own force. This is where Crescent’s insurers’ historical argument would come into play. To determine whether federal maritime law applies of its own force, the US Fifth Circuit: (1) identified the historical treatment of contracts such as the one at issue, and (2) applied Davis & Sons. It seems obvious that this factor will likely at least be revised to substitute Doiron for Davis & Sons. The less obvious question is whether the historical treatment factor is relevant at all going forward.

In Doiron, the Fifth Circuit criticized those “historical” opinions that “improperly focus[ed] on whether the services were inherently maritime as opposed to whether a substantial amount of the work was to be performed from a vessel.” Thus, it is possible that the second PLT factor simply becomes the Doiron test. But, if so, then that would effectively eliminate the necessity of the PLT test for OCS contract law disputes, because the Courts have long since acknowledged that the relevant application of Louisiana law to the contract does not conflict with federal law. If this analysis is correct then Doiron should be the standing legal test for the determination of applicable law in an oilfield contract regardless of the location of the work (OCS vs. State waters).

A comment the Fifth Circuit made in its analysis of another earlier issue seems to bolster that conclusion: “If the contract here is maritime, the fact that it was to be performed in the territorial waters of Louisiana does not justify causing the outcome of this lawsuit to be different than if the contract was for work on the high seas. Consistency and predictability are hard enough to come by in maritime jurisprudence, but we at least should not intentionally create distortions.” After lauding the directness of its new test in Doiron (notwithstanding their use of the unpredictably applied term “substantial role”), the Fifth Circuit could have assisted practitioners with a bit more directness in Crescent Energy Services.

Despite the historically non-maritime nature of P&A work in the Fifth Circuit, the outcome of Crescent Energy Services is not surprising given the necessity of the vessels used for the work. In that respect, this decision is consistent with the Fifth Circuit’s continued primacy – now, by way of the Doiron test highlighting its importance – of the “substantial role” that a vessel will play in the work being done under the contract. While the Fifth Circuit may have left a gap in its recent holdings for the next OCSLA-based contract dispute, we see no reason why Doiron would not be at least a part of that new analysis.

By Michael J. O’Brien

Punitive damages are designed to punish a tortfeasor. They are available as a remedy in general maritime actions where a tortfeasor’s intentional or wanton and reckless conduct amounted to a conscious disregard for the rights of others. The punitive damage standard requires a much higher degree of fault than simple negligence. The amount of a punitive damage award must be considered on a case-by-case basis; however, prior punitive damage awards can provide insight as to what is appropriate.  In the matter of Warren v. Shelter Mutual Ins. Co., et al., 233 So 3d 568 (La. 2017) the Louisiana Supreme Court provided guidance as to when a jury’s punitive damage award was grossly excessive.

The Warren case centered around the wrongful death of Derrick Hebert in a recreational boating accident.  The facts surrounding Derrick Hebert’s death are tragic.  In May 2005, Hebert was a passenger in a boat that suddenly, and without warning, turned violently when the hydraulic steering system failed.  Hebert and four of the other passengers were ejected from the boat. The boat continued to spin around (the kill switch had not been engaged) and its propeller struck Hebert 19 times. Hebert died at the scene. The decedent’s family and estate sought to recover damages under the General Maritime Law and Louisiana Products Liability. Included in the Warren Plaintiffs’ demand was a punitive damage claim under the General Maritime Law.

Nine years after Warren’s untimely death later, the case was tried.  At the close of the 2014 litigation, the jury returning a finding of no liability on the part of the Defendants.  However, the trial court granted the Warren Plaintiffs a new trial based on what it believed to be prejudicial error during the first trial. The second trial resulted in a jury verdict in favor of the Warren Plaintiffs.  The jury awarded compensatory damages of $125,000 and punitive damages of $23,000,000. The Louisiana Third Circuit later affirmed the punitive damage award. A full discussion of the Third Circuit’s decision can be found here.

Defendants successfully applied for writs to the Louisiana Supreme Court.  The Louisiana Supreme Court addressed several assignments of error proffered by the Defendants; however, this article will only address the punitive damage review. After reviewing the record, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that an award of punitive damages was correct. The tortfeasor knew of the serious risks of its steering system and failed to warn its customers that ejection, severe injury, and death could result. Further, the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed with the Third Circuit that the tortfeasor’s conduct was reprehensible and resulted in great harm to the decedent and his family. However, Plaintiffs failed to prove that Defendant acted maliciously or that its behavior was driven primarily for design or gain. While the compensatory damages of $125,000 were deemed low, the harm caused was great and opened the door to higher awards. Yet, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that the award of punitive damages in the amount of $23,000,000 (a ratio of 184:1) was higher than reasonably required to satisfy the objective of punitive damage awards, namely punishment, general deterrence, and specific deterrence. Indeed, the $23,000,000 in punitive damages awarded by the jury did not, in the eyes of the Louisiana Supreme Court, further the goals of punitive damages. While the Defendant was considered a “wealthy corporation,” wealth should not be a driving factor between a punitive damage award and the absence of a showing that the Defendant’s conduct was motivated by greed or malice.  Accordingly, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that the award of $23,000,000 violated the Defendant’s due process rights.

Thereafter, the Louisiana Supreme Court took it upon itself to set the punitive damage award. In its view, based on the actual harm, it found that a punitive damage award of $4,250,000 (a reduction of $18,750,000) more appropriately furthered the goal of punitive damages while protecting the Defendant’s right to due process. Otherwise, the decision of the Third Circuit was affirmed.

by Stephen C. Hanemann

Increasingly common in coastal Louisiana – and even more so during a depressed, offshore, oilfield-services market – is the strained relationship between a marine lender and a vessel owner secondary to the lender asserting creditor’s rights against the vessel through a pre-existing security instrument. In one such dispute, lender, South Lafourche Bank & Trust Co. filed an action to enforce a Promissory Note secured by a Preferred Ship Mortgage against Guilbeau Boat Rentals, owner of the marine vessel NOONIE G.[1]

Conforming to the vessel finance protocol, Gilbeau’s authorized representative executed a Preferred Ship Mortgage encumbering the NOONIE G, pledging the vessel as collateral for the loan made by the Bank. A note, also executed by Gilbeau, was issued with and further secured by the Preferred Ship Mortgage. After several months of alleged non-payment on the note, the Bank instituted legal action to collect the debt owed. The Bank filed a Motion for Summary Judgment seeking a declaration that its mortgage was valid under the Ship Mortgage Act. Guilbeau filed a Motion to Dismiss the Bank’s action, alleging that the mortgage was invalid under Louisiana law and therefore not valid under the Act. Guilbeau claimed that the Act did not provide a valid basis for the Court to exercise subject matter jurisdiction over Guilbeau because the Bank’s financing documents were structured in the form of a Louisiana collateral chattel mortgage, and that such instrument was no longer valid for mortgaging immovable property under Louisiana law.

In its analysis, the Court examined the origin of the Ship Mortgage Act and determined that it was passed by Congress so that vessel-mortgage liens could be enforced in federal courts under admiralty jurisdiction. The Court examined the historically-ineffective nature of state court enforcement of ship mortgages. The Court found that state courts were not permitted to affect maritime liens and ship mortgages executed before the Act, and found that those instruments executed before the Act provided unsatisfactory protection of a ship mortgagee’s security interest.

Thus, the Act was designed to stimulate private investment in U.S. shipping and to protect the United States as the principal source of credit for shipping activities. Further, the Act aimed to induce private-investment capital in shipping projects and to create certainty in financing U.S. vessels. In passing the Act, Congress recognized the need for exclusive admiralty court jurisdiction in vessel foreclosure proceedings. And while state law may serve to supplement maritime law, it must yield when it interferes with a determination made under the Act.

In the matter of the NOONIE G, the Court considered the vessel owner’s argument that a mortgage held to be invalid under state law disqualifies the instrument as valid under the Act. The Court found that the Act itself included no requirement that a mortgage on a U.S. vessel be valid under the laws of the particular state to be an enforceable Preferred Ship Mortgage. The Act actually contains six (6) principal requirements, which are conditions precedent for a valid Preferred Ship Mortgage.[2] The Guilbeau Court found that the Bank’s mortgage met each of the six (6) requirements of the Act and was, therefore, a valid ship mortgage. The Court decided that it need not determine whether the mortgage would have been a valid collateral chattel mortgage under Louisiana law. But the Court did recognize the maxim that state law may otherwise be instructive to resolve mortgage disputes when the Act does not provide sufficient guidance.[3]

In conclusion, notwithstanding the validity of a Preferred Ship Mortgage under the laws of a particular state, if a vessel mortgage meets the six (6) basic requirements under the Act, it shall be a valid Preferred Ship Mortgage. Accordingly, a federal court determining the question of enforcement of a valid Preferred Ship Mortgage shall enjoy federal question admiralty jurisdiction over the subject dispute.[4] The Court, consequently, denied Guilbeau’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, and granted the Bank’s motion seeking a declaration of its mortgage validity.

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[1] S. Lafourche Bank & Trust Co. v. M/V NOONIE G, No. 16-2880, 2017 WL 2634204 (E.D. La. June 19, 2017).

[2] 46 U.S.C. § 31301 (2017).

[3] The Court determined that it need not address the validity of the collateral mortgages on movable property under state law secondary to Louisiana’s adoption of the Uniform Commercial Code Art. 9. But this commentator feels strongly that the concept of the collateral mortgage, as it pertains to vessels, is alive and well in Louisiana, provided that such document meets the requirements of a UCC Art. 9 security instrument.

[4] 46 U.S.C. § 31325(c) (2017).

by Tod J. Everage

On February 12, 2017, a fishing charter boat, the M/V SUPER STRIKE, carrying several paying customers collided with an offshore service boat, the M/V MISS IDA, during a fishing trip. Claims were asserted by the passengers against both vessels and operators in their respective limitation suits. Recently, dispositive motions were filed against the claims asserted by two passengers – whose only alleged damages were for emotional distress resulting from the collision – claiming they were within the “zone of danger.” See In re TK Boat Rentals, (Civ. No. 14-1545) (E.D. La. March 21, 2018).

According to the U.S. 5th Circuit, the “zone of danger” rule permits a plaintiff to recover for emotional injuries that “result from the witnessing of peril or harm to another if the plaintiff is also threatened with physical harm as a consequence of the defendant’s negligence.” Plaisance v. Texaco, Inc., 966 F.2d 166, 168 (5th Cir. 1992). This rule extends to Jones Act seaman for fear of physical injury to themselves as well. Naquin v. Elevating Boats, LLC, 744 F.3d 927, 938 (5th Cir. 2014). Like many similar issues, the Jones Act extension was borne out of a FELA case from the U.S. Supreme Court. See Consol. Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 51 US 532, 548 (1994). In order to recover though, the plaintiff must show that he suffered actual injuries.

The U.S. 5th Circuit has not yet recognized recovery under the “zone of danger” rule for passengers under the general maritime law. See Barker v. Hercules Offshore, Inc., 713 F.3d 208, 224 (5th Cir. 2013). In TK Boat Rentals, the district court commented that the “zone of danger” rule was merely a threshold requirement for a plaintiff to recover for emotional injuries. Because the plaintiffs could not prove they suffered any objective injuries, the Court dismissed their claims without having to make the determination of whether the “zone of danger” rule even applied to them.

One plaintiff, Nick Siria, admitted that he did not suffer any personal injuries as a result of the collision and that he had not and did not plan to seek any medical or psychological treatment as a result of the collision. He claimed he had a few “tense” moments and reactions when he returned to the water and later dealt with a car pulling out in front of him, but he did not elaborate any further. The Court found these statements to be too vague and conclusory to demonstrate an emotional injury and dismissed his claims. The second plaintiff, Tracy Edwards, argued he should recover damages because he too was in the “zone of danger” of the collision. Edwards similarly offered a vague affidavit wherein he alleged he suffered emotional and physical injuries, but provided no description of either injury. Looking to his deposition, the Court could only find testimony that Edwards jumped into the river at the time of the collision and that he found the water to be cold. He sought no medical or psychological treatment. Edwards testified that he now has a fear of the water and could not participate in a snorkeling trip because of the collision; he had no problems fishing from a boat though. The Court was not persuaded that Edwards could support his claims with such limited evidence and dismissed his emotional injury claims as well.

The idea of a physical or real manifestation of injuries is a common one among the courts. While a physical injury (in the traditional sense of the word) is not necessarily needed, there must be some evidence that the plaintiff suffered an injury sufficient to be compensated for it. For example, emotional distress may “physically” manifest itself as a psychological disorder or condition – so long as it is capable of objective determination. See, e.g., Haught v. Maceluch, 681 F.2d 291, 299 n.9 (5th Cir. 1982). It seems that a threshold point would be to show that the plaintiff sought some sort of treatment for his complained of “injuries.” Self-serving affidavits and vague testimony will not cut it. Given the fact-intensive question, courts will evaluate these claims on a case-by-case basis.

The U.S. 1st Circuit more recently commented on this issue in Sawyer Brothers, Inc. v. Island Transporter, No. 16-2470 (1st Cir. April 3, 2018). Though the U.S. 5th Circuit hasn’t yet extended the “zone of danger” rule to passengers under the general maritime law, the U.S. 1st Circuit officially took that step. “Given its application to seaman, we see no principled basis for imposing the more restrictive physical impact test upon passengers alleging NIED under the general maritime law.” In so doing, the 1st Circuit joined the 11th Circuit (Chaparro v. Carnival Corp., 693 F.3d 1333, 1338 (11th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) and the 9th Circuit (Stacy v. Rederiet Otto Danielsen, A.S., 609 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2010), affirmatively allowing such claims. This is not to say that the U.S. 5th Circuit would not join these Circuits, they simply have not yet been forced to pick a side.

The Sawyer Brothers Court dropped a notable footnote in its opinion – the Court would not extend the prohibition of bystander claims set forth in Gottshall to general maritime claims. The Court reasoned that the likelihood of witnessing a death or serious injury of a family member is far greater on the water than on a railroad. In other words, a maritime plaintiff in the 1st Circuit may be allowed to recover if he/she suffered an objective emotional injury as a result of witnessing a death or serious bodily harm to a close family member. Such claims are forbidden under FELA. The 1st Circuit went on to analyze the scope of the “zone of danger” and the provided examples of sufficient physical manifestations of emotional injuries. The plaintiffs in Sawyer Brothers suffered gastrointestinal distress, limb and chest pain, stress-induced shingles, and high fever – all of which were deemed satisfactory to maintain a claim.

While the U.S. 5th and 9th Circuits disagree often on major issues, it remains to be seen if the 5th would disagree with the aforementioned Circuits who have extended “zone of danger” rule to passengers under the general maritime law.

by R. Blake Crohan

The EDLA recently determined that the Insurance Service Office’s (ISO) “Louisiana Changes” endorsement does not expand the scope of Louisiana’s direct action statute. In Menard v. Gibson Applied Technology and Engineering, 2017 WL 6610466 (E.D. La. Dec. 27, 2017), the plaintiff was a senior field technician working offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and was allegedly injured during a personnel basket transfer from a support vessel to a floating, semi-submersible oil-exploration platform. Plaintiff sued several companies along with one of their insurers, ACE American Insurance Company (ACE). ACE filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiff could not maintain a direct action against ACE. ACE argued that because its policy was not written or delivered in Louisiana, and neither the accident nor alleged injury occurred in Louisiana, Louisiana’s direct action statute did not apply and the plaintiff could not file a lawsuit directly against ACE.

The parties did not dispute that the policy was not written or delivered in Louisiana – the policy was not issued in Louisiana and the policy was delivered to the insured in Texas. Further, the accident occurred on the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. It is well settled in the EDLA that an accident or injury occurring in the Gulf of Mexico or on the Outer Continental Shelf does not occur “within Louisiana” for purposes of Louisiana’s direct action statute. See Signal Oil & Gas Co. v. Barge W-701, 654 F.2d 1164, 1175 (5th Cir. 1981); Joyner v. Ensco Offshore Co., No. 99-3754, 2001 WL 333114, at *2-3 (E.D. La. Apr. 5, 2001).

Nevertheless, the plaintiff argued that the ISO’s “Louisiana Changes” policy endorsement made him a third-party beneficiary and granted him a right to bring a direct action against ACE. The endorsement was entitled “Louisiana Changes – Legal Action Against Us” and was numbered “CG 01 18 12 04.” The court recognized that these ISO endorsements must be attached to all commercial general liability policies covering risk in Louisiana. The endorsement provided: “A person or organization may bring a ‘suit’ against us including, but not limited to a ‘suit’ to recover on an agreed settlement or on a final judgment against an insured. . . .” Plaintiff argued that the endorsement expanded the right of action described in the Louisiana direct action statute; and alternatively, if it is ambiguous, it should be construed against the drafter – ACE. The court held that the endorsement did not make plaintiff a third-party beneficiary because the parties to the contract had no such intent. Rather, the endorsement merely embodied Louisiana’s direct action statute. Therefore, the endorsement did not expand the plaintiff’s right to bring a direct action against ACE, when he could not satisfy the direct action factors themselves. Accordingly, the Court granted ACE’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the plaintiff’s direct action claims against ACE.

The Eastern District’s decision in Menard reaffirms that all prerequisites to Louisiana’s direct action statute must be satisfied or a plaintiff’s direct action suit will be dismissed. Further, Menard makes clear that insurers including the ISO’s Louisiana Changes – Legal Action Against Us policy endorsement number CG 01 18 12 04 are not contractually expanding their risk to unwanted and unexpected litigation in Louisiana, where the elements of the direct action statute are not met.

By Stephen C. Hanemann

In matters of international trade, a bill of lading often serves as the contract of carriage between a shipper and carrier for transportation of goods. A Himalaya clause is a provision contained in certain bills of lading protecting carrier’s servants, agents, and independent contractors from third-party claims by limiting shipper’s rights to bring suit against carrier only. When courts enforce the Himalaya clause contained in such a bill of lading, carrier’s agents, servants, and independent contractors are generally immune from legal actions brought by the shipper. Global Oil Tools, Inc. v. Expeditors International of Washington, Inc., et al, a recent case out of the Eastern District of Louisiana, illustrates the concept of claim preclusion secondary to Himalaya clause enforcement.

Global Oil Tools, Inc., (“Shipper”) contracted with Expeditors International of Washington, Inc. (“Carrier”) to arrange for the transatlantic shipment of two containers from New Orleans, Louisiana to Constanta, Romania. Carrier booked carriage for the containers aboard the M/V BAVARIA, a ship operated by Hapag-Lloyd. Ports America, a stevedoring company, loaded the containers onto the M/V BAVARIA.

Shipper twice delayed the shipment of goods, but ultimately, due to a miscommunication between Hapag-Lloyd and Ports America, the ship set sail on March 28, 2016 with Shipper’s containers. The containers arrived at Constanta, Romania, on April 23, 2016. On May 27, 2016 Shipper approved Carrier’s issued bill of lading dated March 28, 2016. Shipper had intended to sell its cargo on arrival in Romania, but the sale was never consummated. Shipper filed suit against Carrier, Hapag-Lloyd, and Ports America seeking damages for the allegedly erroneous shipment of goods.

Hapag-Lloyd and Ports America filed motions for summary judgment invoking the application of the Himalaya clause in the bill of lading. While bills of lading are customarily construed against a carrier, the issuing party, contracts for carriage of goods by sea must be interpreted by their terms, consistent with the intent of the parties. In this transaction Carrier’s bill of lading, by inclusion of a clause paramount, incorporated the provisions of COGSA (“Carriage of Goods by Sea Act”). 46 U.S.C. § 30701 note sec., 13. Although COGSA applies of its own force from the time when the goods are loaded on to the ship until the time when they are discharged from the ship, the clause paramount provides that COGSA shall govern before loading as well.

The Himalaya clause in Carrier’s bill of lading stated that Shipper shall make no claim or allegation against any person other than Carrier, including Carrier’s servants, agents, or independent contractors. By approving the bill of lading terms, Shipper entered a covenant not to sue any party involved in the transportation of its containers except for Carrier. Under the simple language of the bill of lading itself, Shipper contractually relinquished any rights it may have had to sue either Hapag-Lloyd or Ports America.

Despite Shipper’s arguments attacking the enforceability of the bill of lading, there exists significant custom under general maritime law in favor of enforcing bills of lading even when executed after the shipment of goods is complete. In holding that the bill of lading and its terms, including the Himalaya clause, applied to Shipper’s shipment, the Court found that the Shipper had sufficient notice of the bill of lading, and that Shipper explicitly approved the bill of lading after the goods arrived in Romania. Following in line with the jurisprudential precedent of the Second Circuit, Fifth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and U.S. Supreme Court, the Eastern District held that the Himalaya clause in the bill of lading, containing a covenant not to sue Carrier’s subcontractors, was enforceable.  Notwithstanding the inclusion of the Himalaya clause, the Bill of Lading preserved Shipper’s right to sue Carrier, as well as Carrier’s right to sue its subcontractors. Thus, the bill of lading did not violate public policy or any fairness doctrine. Shipper’s covenant not to sue parties other than Carrier precluded Shipper’s right to sue Hapag-Lloyd and Ports America. Thus, Hapag-Lloyd and Ports America were entitled to summary judgment dismissing Shipper’s claims.

by Michael J. O’Brien

In 2016, District Judge Sarah Vance ruled that the heirs of a self-employed commercial fisherman who died while fishing in state territorial waters could recover non-pecuniary damages.  In Re: Marquette Transp., 182 F.Supp. 3d 607 (E.D. La 2016) (citing Yamaha Motor Corp USA v. Calhoun 516 U.S. 1999 (1996)). [Editor’s Note: See blog post on In re Marquette here]. Judge Vance first reiterated that a non-seafarer is someone who is neither a seaman covered by the Jones Act nor a longshore or harbor worker covered by the LHWCA. Based on this reasoning, the In re Marquette decedent was found to be a non-seafarer. Further, his survivors could pursue state law remedies and recover non-pecuniary damages under state law. Two years later, Judge Vance recently revisited Yamaha to address a separate but similar issue:  whether the spouse of an injured non-seafarer can recover damages pursuant to state law claims for loss of society and consortium.

In Van Horn, et al. v. Chubb Ins. Co., et al., No. 1711969, (E.D. La 4/03/18). The injured Plaintiff, Muriel Van Horn, was a race official for sailing regattas on Lake Pontchartrain. On the day in question, Mrs. Van Horn boarded a boat for transport to her official’s position. While traveling on Lake Pontchartrain, the boat operator suddenly accelerated his vessel over the swells of the lake. The boat left the water’s surface, assumed a nearly vertical position in the air, and violently slammed down on the water. As a result, Mrs. Van Horn fractured her right tibial plateau. She required major surgery and ongoing medical care. Mrs. Van Horn and her husband sued the boat operator and others for damages under the General Maritime Law as well as Louisiana Law in supplement to General Maritime Law. Specifically, Mr. Van Horn asserted Louisiana state law claims for loss of consortium and society as a result of his wife’s injuries. Defendants took exception to Plaintiffs’ claims and moved to dismiss all claims for loss of consortium and society.

In support of their claims, the Van Horns argued that claims for loss of consortium and society are available to the spouse of a non-seafarer injured in territorial waters when authorized by state law per Yamaha. Note that Yamaha’s “non-seafarer” and “territorial waters” requirements were met as it was undisputed that Mrs. Van Horn was a non-seafarer injured in Louisiana’s territorial waters. Further, Louisiana law permits the spouse of an injured person to recover damages for loss of consortium and society. As such, the Van Horns alleged that they were well within their rights to maintain these non-pecuniary claims.

Alternatively, the Defendants suggested that Yamaha was limited solely to wrongful death actions.  Defendants cited the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in In Re: Amtrak “Sunset Limited” Train Crash, 121 F.3d 1421 (11th Cir. 1997), where that circuit held that Yamaha does not extend to personal injury actions because state wrongful death actions had a historical basis in admiralty. The Eleventh Circuit’s rationale was that no General Maritime cause of action for wrongful death existed prior to 1970; thus, admiralty courts looked to state law to provide a remedy for the deaths of non-seamen in territorial waters.  By contrast, the General Maritime Law has long recognized a personal injury cause of action, such that admiralty courts did not need to rely on state law for remedies in cases of personal injury.  As such, according to Defendants (and the Eleventh Circuit), Mr. Van Horn should be unable to maintain his loss of consortium and society claims.

While Judge Vance admitted that the Eleventh Circuit’s argument had “some force,” she was not persuaded that the Yamaha Court endorsed separate remedies for personal injuries and wrongful deaths of non-seafarers in territorial waters.  Indeed, given the absence of conflict between state remedies and federal law as well as the “clear trend toward consistent treatment of maritime personal injury and wrongful death actions”, Judge Vance found that Yamaha was applicable to personal injuries within territorial waters. As such, Louisiana laws governing loss of consortium damages may supplement General Maritime Law with regard to personal injuries of non-seafarers in territorial waters. Accordingly, Judge Vance held that Mr. Van Horn claims of loss of consortium and society could proceed.

by Michael J. O’Brien

It is now well settled in the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that a seaman cannot recover punitive damages on an unseaworthiness claim. McBride v. Estis Well Service, 768 F.3d 382 (5th Cir. 2014) (en banc). Specifically, the U.S. Fifth Circuit has held that punitives are non-pecuniary losses and therefore may not be recovered under the Jones Act or General Maritime Law. However, this opinion is not shared by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Indeed, in the matter of Batterton v. Dutra Group, 880 F.3d 1089 (9th Cir. 2018), the Ninth Circuit held that the opposite was true and allowed a seaman to pursue punitive damages on his unseaworthiness claims.

In a prior case, Evich v. Morris, 819 F.2d 256 (9th Cir. 1987), the Ninth Circuit held that punitive damages were available under General Maritime Law for claims of unseaworthiness and for failure to pay maintenance and cure.  Dutra relied on the Fifth Circuit’s line of cases as well as the Supreme Court’s decision in Miles v. Apex Marine Corp. that Evich had been overruled.

The sole question before the Ninth Circuit in Dutra was whether punitive damages were an available remedy for unseaworthiness. While noting that the Fifth Circuit’s leading opinions in McBride are “scholarly and carefully reasoned” the Ninth Circuit found that McBride’s dissenting opinions, which argue that punitive damages are available on unseaworthiness actions, were more persuasive.  In forming its opinion, the Ninth Circuit chose to adopt a broad interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Atlantic Sounding Co. v. Townsend, 557 US 404, 129 S.Ct. 2561 (2009).

In Townsend, the Supreme Court held that punitive damages were available to Jones Act seamen for the willful failure to pay maintenance and cure. The Townsend Court held that “historically, punitive damages have been available and awarded in general maritime actions” and “nothing in Miles v. Apex Marine or the Jones Act eliminates that availability.” The Fifth Circuit in McBride interpreted Townsend to only apply to maintenance and cure. The Ninth Circuit in Dutra took a far more expansive interpretation. Relying on the Townsend Court’s notation that punitive damages had historically been available and awarded in general maritime actions, the Ninth Circuit found no persuasive reason to distinguish maintenance and cure actions from unseaworthiness actions with respect to the damages awardable. Accordingly, a seaman may bring a claim for punitive damages if he falls within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit.

This decision has yielded a clear split between the Ninth Circuit and Fifth Circuit on the issue of whether punitive damages are available in an unseaworthy action. Splits in circuit courts of appeals are typically addressed by the United States Supreme Court. As such, it will ultimately fall to the highest court in the land to resolve this compelling issue.

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.

By Michael O’Brien

In Voces v. Energy Resource Technology, GOM, LLC, et al. the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reviewed the longstanding general rule in Louisiana known as the independent contractor defense, which provides that a principal is not liable for the negligent acts of an independent contractor acting pursuant to the contract.

The facts in Voces are similar to what occur in the oil field on a daily basis. Defendant Energy Resource Technology GOM, LLC, (“ERT”) hired independent contractor Offshore Specialty Fabricators, LLC (“OSF”) to remove an oil and gas platform. The contract between ERT and OSF provided that OSF would perform all work as an independent contractor and that OSF was responsible for providing all necessary services, equipment, materials, personnel, and engineering to safely remove the platform. The contract also spelled out OSF’s duties and responsibilities, which included written operating procedures, the performance of all work in accordance with the written operating procedures, the review of operating procedures, and the performance of work with personnel trained to do so in a safe manner. During the removal process, ERT maintained a Company Man aboard the platform to monitor OSF’s work for compliance with the contract.

The decommissioning of the platform proceeded without incident until a tragic accident claimed the life of Peter Voces, a welder employed by OSF. Following Mr. Voces’ death and a Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) panel investigation, the decedent’s wife filed suit.  Mrs. Voces claimed that ERT was vicariously liable for the negligence of its contractor OSF and independently liable for its own negligence.  Her claims against ERT were based on the presence of the ERT Company Man aboard the platform.

As stated above, the independent contractor defense is a general Louisiana rule that a principal is not liable for the negligent acts of an independent contractor; there are exceptions to this rule. Specifically, the “operational control” exception applies when the principal retains or exercises operational control over the independent contractor’s acts or expressly or impliedly authorizes an unsafe practice. This exception is routinely satisfied in situations where a Company Man is present.

ERT moved to dismiss Ms. Voces’s claims based on the independent contractor defense. The District Court agreed and determined that Mrs. Voces could not prevail on her vicarious liability claim because she could not prove that ERT maintained the requisite operational control over OSF’s acts or that ERT expressly or impliedly authorized OSF’s unsafe practices. On review, the U.S. Fifth Circuit reiterated that determining operational control depends in great measure upon whether and to what degree the right to control the work has been contractually reserved by the principal.  Operational control exists only if the principal has direct supervision of the step-by-step process of accomplishing the work such that the contractor is not entirely free to do the work in his own way.  The Fifth Circuit also held that a principal may demand in its contract that an independent contractor develop safe work practices without triggering the operational control exception.

Further, it is critical to note that a principal may monitor (via a Company Man) its independent contractor’s work for compliance with contractual demands without triggering the operational control exception. As such, the mere fact that a principal takes an interest in the safety of the employees of its independent contractors and stations a Company Man on the platform does not, in and of itself, constitute operational control. Here, the Fifth Circuit found that ERT’s Company Man never dictated the work methods or operative details of the platform removal procedure. Instead, the ERT Company Man merely inspected OSF’s procedures and work to ensure OSF’s contractual compliance. Accordingly, the 5th Circuit included that ERT did not exercise operational control.

Last, the Court considered whether ERT could be held liability for its own negligent acts. Again, Mrs. Voces placed great emphasis on the presence of ERT’s Company Man aboard the platform.  However, the Court was not persuaded. Indeed, the Court advised that it has not located any Louisiana authority holding that a principal assumes a duty to ensure the safety of an independent contractor’s employees by merely stationing a Company Man on an oil platform for the purpose of overseeing a contractor’s compliance with his contractual obligations. A Company Man does not affirmatively assume any duty to provide an independent contractor’s employees with a safe workplace simply by observing their unsafe work habits. Accordingly, the Judgment of the District Court dismissing the claims of the Voces Plaintiffs against ERT was affirmed.