No Explanation for Man Overboard = No Liability

Author: Wilton E. Bland, IV

The plaintiffs in this case were the parents of a seaman who was lost at sea and presumed dead, while working for an oil spill cleanup operation in the Gulf of Mexico.  The decedent was last seen on a barge owned by his employer and his body was never recovered.  His parents brought claims against the vessel owner under the Jones Act and for unseaworthiness of the barge.

The defendant vessel owner filed a Motion for Summary Judgment citing a complete lack of evidence surrounding the seaman’s disappearance and therefore a lack of evidence of any negligence or unseaworthiness.

Plaintiffs countered with three arguments.  First, there was inconsistent testimony regarding the time the decedent was last seen.  The Court fund that even if the trier of fact allowed to weigh the inconsistent testimony, it offered no insight into when or how the decedent disappeared, Second, the plaintiffs argued the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur for the inference that the disappearance must have been caused by vessel negligence.  The Court held that res ipsa did not apply because there was not even enough evidence to support the type of negligence to be inferred.  Finally, the plaintiffs argued the defendant violated the maritime rescue doctrine, which places a duty on a vessel owner to use every reasonable means to retrieve a lost seaman.  In granting summary judgment for the defendant, the Court held that the vessel owner could not have breached this duty without any evidence that the seaman was ever visible in the water.

Kennedy v. Lafayette Workboat Rentals, Inc., 2012 WL 10553 (E.D. La. Jan. 3, 2012).