The Fifth Circuit Explains the Application of Maritime Law to Jack-Up Rigs and Removal of OCSLA Claims

After watching his friend and co-worker die as a result of an accident on a jack-up rig attached to the Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”), Plaintiff filed suit in a Texas state court.  Plaintiff conceded that he did not sustain a physical injury, but he alleged to have suffered severe emotional distress from witnessing his friend’s death.  Further, the emotional distress caused physical problems.  In response to Plaintiff’s state court lawsuit, Defendants removed the action to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas under the federal question jurisdiction of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”).  The federal district court then determined that Plaintiff could not recover under either Texas law or maritime law and granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment.  Plaintiff appealed the district court’s decision and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

The “difficult question” the court had to answer was “whether federal, state, or maritime law provides the substantive rule of decision for [Plaintiff’s] OCSLA claim.”  The OCSLA provides a federal cause of action for incidents arising on the OCS.  State law can fill in any gaps in federal law (where applicable and not inconsistent with federal law).  But if maritime law applies of its own force, then the maritime law “displaces not only state law, but any federal law that might have applied to the action.”  For maritime law to apply to an OCSLA tort action, there must be both a “maritime situs and a connection to traditional maritime activity.”  The Fifth Circuit further explained the test as follows:

To satisfy the first prong of this test, a plaintiff must show that the tort at issue either “occurred on navigable water,” or if the injury is suffered on land, that it was “caused by a vessel on navigable water.” Id. In this circuit, jack-up drilling platforms (like the one at issue in this suit) are considered vessels under maritime law. Demette, 280 F.3d 498 n. 18 (collecting cases); Smith, 960 F.2d at 460; but see Rodrigue, 395 U.S. at 360 (holding that fixed drilling platforms “were islands, albeit artificial ones …. [and that] drilling platforms are not within admiralty jurisdiction.”). Even though the first prong of this test is satisfied, however, maritime law will not apply unless this suit also involves a “connection to traditional maritime activity.” Hufnagel, 182 F.3d at 351; accord Exec. Jet, 409 U.S. at 261 (emphasizing the importance of this second factor).

To satisfy the second prong of the maritime requirement, a plaintiff must show that the incident caused a “potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce,” and that “the general character of the activity giving rise to the incident shows a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.” Great Lakes, 513 U.S. at 534 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). In other words, the question is whether “the tortfeasor’s activity … is so closely related to activity traditionally subject to admiralty law that the reasons for applying special admiralty rules would apply in the suit at hand.” Id. at 539–40; see also Sisson, 497 U.S. at 367 (holding that “the fundamental interest giving rise to maritime jurisdiction is ‘the protection of maritime commerce.’ “ (quoting Richardson, 457 U.S. at 674)).

The problem with Plaintiff’s case was that “exploration and development of the Continental Shelf are not themselves maritime commerce.”  Offshore drilling, like the kind Plaintiff was engaged in, is not maritime activity.  Nonetheless, the Fifth Circuit recognized that accidents on a jack-up rig may result in a maritime claim when arising during the transport of the rig over water, or similar situations.  Thus, the Fifth Circuit issued the following conclusion:

Navigating this precedent we conclude that, when determining whether maritime law applies to a tort suit, this court must look to whether the act which gave rise to the incident in question—in this case, replacing casing over a well—was in furtherance of the non-maritime activity of offshore oil exploration and drilling, or whether it was related to repair and maintenance of a jack-up drilling rig for the purpose of enabling the rig to move across water.

Here, Plaintiff made no allegations that his emotional injuries were caused or affected by the movement of the jack-up rig over water.  Therefore, the “general character of this incident appears to be non-maritime in nature.”  Still, however, the court refrained from affirmatively deciding whether maritime law applied to this action.  Instead, it upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment in Defendants’ favor by explaining why Plaintiff could not recover under either Texas state law or maritime law.

The Fifth Circuit also resolved an inter-Circuit split regarding the removal of OCSLA claims, stating that, “[m]aritime law, when it applies under OCSLA, displaces federal law only as to the substantive law of decision and has no effect on the removal of an OCSLA action.”  Thus, it was appropriate to remove the case to federal court based on the OCSLA’s grant of federal question jurisdiction, regardless of the application of maritime law.

Barker v. Hercules Offshore, Inc., — F.3d —- (5th Cir. 2013).