Jones Act Case: No Automatic Liability for Employer for Medical Providers’ Negligence

In a recent Jones Act case, Randle v. Crosby Tugs, L.L.C., 911 F.3d 280 (5th Cir. 2018), the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, ruled that the employer/vessel owner was not automatically liable for the malpractice of the physicians that treated a seaman who suffered a stroke while aboard their vessel.

Randle v. Crosby Tugs, L.L.C. – Background

The plaintiff was employed as a Jones Act seaman and allegedly sustained a stroke while aboard the vessel at the dock in Amelia, Louisiana. The crew called for medical assistance, and Acadian Ambulance was dispatched to the vessel. Plaintiff was thereafter transported via ambulance to Teche Regional Medical Center (“TRMC”) less than an hour after the initial 911 call. Plaintiff was subsequently transferred by TRMC to Ochsner Medical Center (“Ochsner”) in New Orleans, where his treatment continued.

It was undisputed that plaintiff never returned to the vessel and that his employer was not involved in plaintiff’s medical care beyond calling 911 and having him immediately evacuated for diagnosis and treatment.

The Ruling

Plaintiff later sued his employer/vessel owner, arguing that it should be liable for the allegedly negligent decision of TRMC doctors (in consultation with stroke specialists at Ochnser) in the treatment of the stroke after he arrived at the emergency room. The employer/vessel owner moved for summary judgment on the Jones Act negligence and unseaworthiness claims on the basis that it did not select the medical providers and there was no agency or employment relationship with any of the medical providers (the parties reached a settlement of the maintenance and cure claims).

The District Court rightly agreed and granted summary judgment.

The Appeal

Under well-established precedent, a seaman’s employer can be liable for alleged negligence in the seaman’s medical treatment if the employer made some affirmative act in selecting or engaging the physician.

On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, plaintiff argued that employer/vessel owner breached its nondelegable duty to provide prompt and adequate medical care. The Fifth Circuit in a per curiam opinion affirmed dismissal of the seaman’s claims. The crewmembers “selected the course of action reasonably calculated to get [plaintiff] to a medical facility that would be able to treat him.”

In addition, the Fifth Circuit held that the employer/vessel owner was not vicariously liable for the malpractice of the TRMC physicians. While a shipowner can be liable for the negligence of medical providers it selects, in this instance the employer/vessel owner “did not select TRMC as its agent or otherwise express its assent that TRMC would act on its behalf….”