Alabama: Prior Longshore Settlement Not Determinative of Seaman Status

Purdue and Williams worked as line handlers for a shipping company that provided line-handling services to vessels docking and undocking at various terminals in the Port of Mobile.   Much of Purdue’s and Williams’s work was performed dockside, but they sometimes worked on line-handling boats maintained by their employer.  On June 19, 2008, while performing their line handler duties aboard one of their employer’s boats, an accident occurred.  Purdue and Williams were hooked to an ocean-going tanker when the tanker’s lines began to retract, pulling their 17-foot boat from the water.  As a result, Purdue’s and Williams’s boat capsized.  Purdue was able to climb to the top of the capsized boat but Williams, who could not swim, drowned.

A few months later, Purdue and a representative of the Williams estate filed suit against their employer, as well as Groton Pacific and International Tanker Management  (the ocean-going tanker’s managers).  They alleged that Purdue and Williams were Jones Act seaman or, alternatively, longshoremen entitled to compensation under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (“LHWCA”).  They simultaneously sought benefits under the LHWCA via the United States Department of Labor.  The employer denied that Purdue and Williams were seaman, arguing that they were longshoremen instead.  While still maintaining their seaman suit, Purdue and the Williams representative entered into a LHWCA settlement where the stipulated in writing that Purdue and Williams were harbor workers, subject to “the exclusive jurisdiction of the [LHWCA] … for workers’ compensation benefits determination for each injury/death.”  The settlement was approved by an Administrative Law Judge who issued a formal settlement award.  As part of the settlement, Purdue and the Williams representative agreed to voluntarily dismiss their Jones Act suit against their employer.  Groton and International Tanker, who were not parties to the LHWCA settlement, remained defendants in the Jones Act suit.

Despite the LHWCA settlement, the Jones Act suit continued.  The parties filed motions asking the trial court for a ruling as to Purdue’s and Williams’s seaman status.  The court ruled as a matter of law that Purdue and Williams were harbor workers, but that the plaintiffs could recover nonpecuniary damages and punitive damages.  Groton and International Tanker appealed after the jury returned a $5 million verdict, arguing that the trial court incorrectly charged the jury with respect to the types of damages available to Purdue and the Williams estate.

The Supreme Court of Alabama recognized the problems associated with the classification of Purdue and Williams as seaman versus harbor workers:

The parties generally agree that the question of Williams’s and Purdue’s status—seaman versus harbor worker—is important in this case because the answer to this inquiry affects the types of damages available.  Without wading too deeply into the stormy waters of maritime-damages law, we note that nonpecuniary damages are generally available to harbor workers injured or killed in territorial waters.  On the other hand, general maritime law does not, in most cases, allow recovery of nonpecuniary damages for the injury or wrongful death of a seaman.  Thus, a plaintiff’s status must be decided in order to fix what categories of damages the jury may award.  (Note: internal citations omitted.)

So, considering the types of damages available, Groton and International Tanking wanted Purdue and Williams classified as seaman.  But what about the LHWCA settlement where Purdue and the Williams representative stipulated that they were harbor workers?  The court addressed that, too:

First, we reject the argument that the settlement agreement between Jackson [the Williams representative], Purdue, and Mo-Bay, approved in a proceeding before the United States Department of Labor, bound the trial court to a finding that Williams and Purdue were harbor workers, as a matter of law.  In support of their argument, Jacson and Purdue rely on the case of Sharp v. Johnson Bros. Corp., 973 F.2d 423, 426 (5th Cir. 1992).  In Sharp, an employee was injured while performing bridge-repair work.  The employee sued his employer under the Jones Act and filed a claim under the LHWCA.  The worker eventually reached a settlement with his employer with regard to his claim for compensation under the LHWCA; that settlement was approved by an administrative law judge of the Department of Labor.  The court in Sharp, citing the holding in Southwest Marine, Inc. v. Gizoni, 502 U.S. 81, 91 (1991), that an employee who accepts voluntary payments from his employer under the LHWCA without a “formal award” is not barred from pursuing a Jones Act claim against his employer, held that the order approving the settlement constituted a “formal award” that barred the employee from pursuing the Jones Act claim against his employer for the same injuries.

Jackson and Purdue’s reliance on Sharp in this case is misplaced.  Sharp stands for the unremarkable principle that once an employee litigates and reaps the benefits of his LHWCA compensation claim against his employer, he can not then sue his employer as a “seaman” seeking a second recover for the same injury.  973 F.2d at 427 (“[T]he LHWCA was not intended to be a ‘stepping stone on the way to a jury award.'”).  In this case, however, Groton Pacific and ITM, alleged third-party tortfeasors, were not parties to the settlement agreement or to the Department of [Labor] proceeding, and Williams’s and Purdue’s harbor-worker/seaman status is an element of proof required to recover against Groton Pacific and ITM under 33 U.S.C. § 905(b).  It would be a gross violation of Groton’s and ITM’s due-process rights to relieve Jackson and Purdue of their burden of proof on an element of their claim and preclude Groton Pacific and ITM from a full and fair opportunity to contest Williams’s and Purdue’s seaman status on the basis of a private settlement agreement and proceeding to which Groton Pacific and ITM were not parties.  See Blonder-Tongue Labs, Inc. v. University of Illinois Found, 402 U.S. 313, 329 (1971).  The holding in Sharp, which limits an injured maritime employee’s ability to seek multiple recoveries from his employer for the same injury under mutually exclusive statutes, does not support the offensive application of the collateral-estoppel doctrine urged upon us by Jackson and Purdue.  Accordingly, we hold that the Department of labor administrative law judge’s order approving JAckson’s and Purdue’s settlement for LHWCA compensation benefits did not establish, as a matter of law, for purposes of this case that Williams and Purdue were harbor workers.

 In other words, the court determined that the harbor worker stipulation in the LHWCA settlement and award was not determinative.  Instead, the court determined that it must apply the two-prong test announced by the Supreme Court of the United States in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995).  The two-prong test requires the trier of fact to determine whether the employee was doing the ship’s work and whether the employee had a connection to a vessel in navigation that was substantial it terms of both duration and nature.  Here, substantial evidence existed which could have resulted in a determination that Purdue and Williams were seamen.  As such, the trial court erred when it determined as a matter of law that Purdue and Williams were seaman.  The Supreme Court of Alabama remanded the case for a resolution by the jury of the issue of Purdue’s and Williams’s seaman status.

Groton Pacific Carriers, Inc. v. Jackson, — So.3d —- (Ala. 2014).