U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana Declines to Hold Jones Act Employer Liable and Vessel Unseaworthy

[A] seaman’s burden to prove causation between his employer’s negligence and his injury is “very light.” O’Neill v. Seariver Mar., Inc., 246 F. App’x 278, 280 (5th Cir. 2007) (quoting Martin v. John W. Stone Oil Distrib., Inc., 819 F.2d 547, 548 (5th Cir. 1987)).

However, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana recently dismissed a Jones Act seaman’s claims for negligence and unseaworthiness, confirming that the seaman’s burden is not weightless.

Douglas v. Chem Carriers Towing, LLC – Background

In Douglas v. Chem Carriers Towing, LLC, 409 F. Supp. 3d 570 (E.D. La. 2019), appeal dismissed sub nom. Douglas v. Chem Carriers Towing, L.L.C., No. 19-30787, 2020 WL 1480847 (5th Cir. Mar. 11, 2020), plaintiff, Anthony Douglas, sued his employer for Jones Act negligence and for the alleged unseaworthiness of the M/V MISS DANIELLE, the inland push boat to which he was assigned at the time of his alleged accident. Payment of maintenance and cure was not disputed.

Douglas alleged that he slipped and fell while exiting the MISS DANIELLE’s shower. As Douglas was exiting the shower, his right foot caught on the shower’s 9.5-inch threshold. Id. at 573. Douglas alleged that his employer, Chem Carriers Towing, LLC (“Chem Carriers”), was negligent for providing a shower that was unsafe due to the shower threshold height and the lack of grab bars. He also argued that he was not allowed sufficient time to rest prior to his decision to shower, contributing to his injury. Id at 574. In support of his claims, Douglas retained a marine liability expert, Michael Weeks.

After the close of discovery, Chem Carriers moved for summary judgment on the issue of liability, and a motion in limine regarding Weeks’ report, opinions and testimony. District Court Judge Sarah Vance addressed each of Douglas’ claims individually. Prior to issuing her Order and Reasons on summary judgment, Judge Vance excluded Weeks under separate cover, holding that his testimony was unreliable and inadmissible. See generally Douglas v. Chem Carriers Towing, LLC, 431 F. Supp. 3d 830 (E.D. La. 2019).

Judge Vance’s Ruling

Regarding the MISS DANIELLE’s shower, Judge Vance held that “[n]either the plaintiff nor his excluded expert identified any applicable regulations or standards that apply to an uninspected towing vessel—or if so, that apply specifically to the design of a shower—which might substantiate the plaintiff’s claim.” 409 F. Supp. 3d 570, 576 (E.D. La. 2019) (citations omitted). Though Judge Vance found that OSHA regulations apply to uninspected towing vessels, such as the MISS DANIELLE, “these regulations do not govern the shower features that the plaintiff points to as being unsafe—that is, the threshold height, tile floor, and absence of grab bars.” Id. at 576.

Furthermore, Judge Vance stated that “the evidence would not support a jury’s finding that a risk actually did exist. A threshold less than a foot in height is not so high that, in light of common experience, one would not expect to be able to step over it. Indeed, Douglas had previously used the shower on the MISS DANIELLE twice before without incident.” Id at 577.

Douglas also argued that his fatigue played a role in the accident, because “he was told to travel to the place of his next assignment following the end of his shift[.]” Id. at 580. Judge Vance was similarly unpersuaded: “[a]s an initial matter, the plaintiff himself has never suggested that he felt fatigued, or that any fatigue caused his accident. He did not note being fatigued when he reported the accident to Chem Carriers, or when he visited a nurse after the accident.” Id.

Furthermore, regarding Douglas’ expert’s opinion that Chem Carriers violated the U. S. Coast Guard’s 12 Hour Rule (46 U.S.C. § 8104(h), which forbids a vessel’s crewmembers from working more than twelve hours in a twenty-four-hour period), the Court did not read this rule as a general matter, to suggest that an employer cannot allow a seaman to shower following a twelve-hour shift without creating an unreasonably unsafe condition. And in the context of this specific case, no evidence exists that the plaintiff’s work caused him to suffer fatigue to such an extent that an able-bodied seaman would be impeded from lifting his foot 9.5 inches over an open and obvious shower threshold.

Overall, therefore, no triable issue of fact exists with regard to the plaintiff’s fatigue.

Id. at 580-581.