Plaintiff-Seaman Can’t Recover Emotional Damages For Witnessing Injury To Someone Else

Plaintiff worked as a vessel repair supervisor at his employer’s shipyard facility.   His primary responsibility was the maintenance and repair of Employer’s life boats.  He spent roughly 70% of his time aboard those vessels.  The other 30% of the time, Plaintiff worked in the shipyard’s fabrication shop or operating a land-based crane.  It was during his land-based maintenance duties that Plaintiff was injured by a falling crane that crashed into a nearby building.   Plaintiff sustained a broken left foot, a severely broken right foot, and an abdominal hernia.  To make matters worse, Plaintiff’s cousin’s husband (another employee at the shipyard) was crushed by the crane and killed.  After a three-day trial, a jury concluded that Claimant was a Jones Act seaman, that Employer was negligent, and that Claimant was entitled to $2,400,000 in damages, which included $1,000,000 for past and future mental pain and suffering.

Employer appealed, challenging inter alia the jury’s determination that Plaintiff was a Jones Act seaman.  Specifically, Employer argued that Plaintiff was a land-based repairman who should be compensated under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, as opposed to a seaman who should be compensated under the Jones Act.  The Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding that Plaintiff satisfied the two-prong seaman test:

Though the Jones Act does not define “seaman,” Congress has elsewhere defined it as the “master or member of a crew of any vessel.”  To determine if a worker is a seaman or member of a vessel’s crew, the Supreme Court has established a two-prong test: “First, ‘an employee’s duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission.’  Second, ‘a seaman must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both duration and nature.'”  Importantly, an individual can still qualify for seaman status even if he divides his time among multiple vessels under common ownership or control.  The relevant question is whether, in the course of his current job, he substantially contributes to the vessels’ functions and maintains a substantial connection with the fleet.”

Here, Plaintiff’s work was the ship’s work.  His employment duties focused on Employer’s vessels.  Plus, he did the ship’s work a substantial period of time.  Previously, the Supreme Court “endorsed” the Fifth Circuit’s general rule of thumb that “[a] worker who spends less than about 30 percent of his time in the service of a vessel in navigation should not qualify as a seaman under the Jones Act.”  Here, Plaintiff spent 70% of his time working on Employer’s fleet of lift-boats, thus satisfying the “substantial in duration” inquiry.  Accordingly, Plaintiff was a seaman.

Nevertheless, Employer was successful with one important aspect of the claim: the availability of emotional damages for Plaintiff as a result of the death of Plaintiff’s relative.  After the trial, the jury awarded Plaintiff $1,000,000 for emotional suffering, but the Jones Act “does not indiscriminately permit compensation for emotional damages resulting from the death of another person.”  While Plaintiff may be entitled to emotional damages if he was in the zone of danger, Plaintiff was not entitled to emotional damages for the harm that happened to someone else, let alone a distant relative:

As described by the Supreme Court, the zone of danger test allows a Jones Act plaintiff “to recover for emotional injury caused by fear of physical injury to himself.”  More tellingly, the . . . Court explicitly rejected the relative bystander test, which would have permitted certain relatives to recover for emotional damages caused by witnessing an injury to someone else.  As our own court has previously recognized, it would be a “major departure from the existing jurisprudence” to “allow recovery for injuries resulting not from physical trauma, or the fear of physical trauma, to the plaintiff but from witnessing a ‘bad sight,’ i.e., harm to another.”

Several other considerations bolster this conclusion.  If multiple people witness an injury to someone else, it would be arbitrary to award emotional damages for seeing that person’s injury only to those people who also happened to suffer an injury at the same time.  Moreover, the Jones Act only extends an action to recover for the death of a seaman to his immediate family.  It would thus be inconsistent with the Jones Act’s wrongful death provision to permit anyone else to recover for the negligent death of a coworker.

Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit vacated the jury’s award and remanded for a new trial on damages.  The court could not discern to what extent the jury’s findings compensated Plaintiff for the emotional damages he suffered as a result of his relative’s death.

Naquin v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C., — F.3d —- (5th Cir. 2014).

Note: Take a moment to read Judge Jones’ dissent.  Here’s the conclusion: “With all respect to the majority, I would hold that [Plaintiff] is not entitled to seaman status and, therefore, reverse the district court’s ruling that [Employer] was liable under the Jones Act.”