U.S. Fifth Circuit Clarifies Seaman’s Standard of Care Under the Jones Act

In a recent opinion regarding a seaman’s comparative fault for his personal injury claim, the U.S. Fifth Circuit clarified a longstanding area of contention under the Jones Act. Moreover, the Court further demonstrated its deference to the District Court and the procedural importance of timely raising arguments in the pre-trial stage.

Knight v. Kirby Offshore Marine Pacific, LLC – Background

In Knight v. Kirby Offshore Marine Pacific, LLC, Andrew Knight was a seaman aboard the SEA HAWK—a seagoing tug owned by Kirby that was bound for Alaska from Seattle. As an offshore tankerman, Knight’s duties principally included deck labor for the tug and barges.

On the night of Knight’s accident, the SEA HAWK was in choppy seas: four-foot waves and winds of at least 20 miles per hour. Knight’s captain ordered him and another crew member to replace a chafed stern line—a thick line several inches thick and over a hundred feet long. Knight and his coworker removed the chafed stern line and set it aside on the deck. Knight then tripped over the line, injuring his ankle.

Knight filed a Jones Act lawsuit against Kirby, claiming that the captain was negligent in ordering him to replace the line during foul weather. He prevailed at a bench trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, but nonetheless filed a post-trial motion claiming several specific errors. When that motion was denied, he took the case up on appeal.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court’s Opinion clarifies area of contention under the Jones Act

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court addressed each claimed error in turn, analyzing a legal issue of first impression and addressing a set of procedural missteps made by Knight.

Knight’s principal claim of error arose from the fact that the District Court found him to be contributorily negligent, despite the fact that he was following an order at the time of his injury. Knight relied on a prior Fifth Circuit case, Williams v. Brasea, Inc., in which the Court stated in dictum: “a seaman may not be contributorily negligent for carrying out orders that result in his own injury, even if he recognizes possible danger.” 497 F.2d 67 (5th Cir. 1974). Knight sought to apply this language broadly, asking the Court to hold that in this case he could not have been negligent because his captain had ordered him to swap out the line.

But the Court refused to apply precedent so broadly. Rather, the Court held that the Williams language was mere dicta, and was not binding. The Court noted that its own jurisprudence had developed a distinction between general and specific orders. A seaman who is injured while following a specific order from his captain (i.e., an order to do a specific task in a specific way) cannot be contributorily negligent. However, where the order is broad and general—such as the order given Knight—the seaman still has a duty to act with the same ordinary prudence with which he normally must conduct himself.

Notably, this holding sparked a contentious dissenting opinion. Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod wrote that the Williams dicta should be binding and dispositive in this case, and that any seamen who is injured while carrying out any order should per se not be contributorily negligent.

On his second claimed error regarding contributory negligence, Knight successfully complained that the District Court improperly assigned him comparative fault for negligently placing the line on the deck. Knight pointed out that all of the evidence indicated that he followed proper procedure in placing the chafed line on the deck while replacing it with the new one. The SEA HAWK’s captain even testified that Knight performed properly and did not haphazardly throw the line on the deck. The Fifth Circuit therefore found that while Knight was negligent in stepping on the loose line, he was not negligent in placing it on the deck in the first place.

Knight’s other assignments of error were promptly dismissed due to a procedural misstep on his part. The Fifth Circuit refused to consider whether Knight’s co-worker bore any portion of comparative fault, pointing out that Knight failed to raise them in the pre-trial stage.

The Fifth Circuit also held that the District Court properly determined the sum total of his damages, and in doing so granted substantial deference to the trial court. The Court applied the rule that if it can find even one case that granted a similar award to a plaintiff with similar injuries, it would not disturb the trial court’s calculation of damages.

The Upshot of Knight v. Kirby Offshore Marine Pacific, LLC

In sum, Knight has further clarified the scenarios in which a seaman is entitled to rely on her captain’s orders—reinforcing her duty to act with ordinary prudence in all situations except those in which she received a specific and direct order. Moreover, the Fifth Circuit further emphasized the need to timely raise all legal arguments in the pre-trial stage, and further showed substantial deference to the trial court on damages calculations.