Eleventh Circuit Reaffirms District Court Decision in LHWCA Claim Against Vessel Under 905(b)

In a recent Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reaffirmed its recent holding that the open and obvious nature of hazardous equipment is a viable defense against claims brought against a vessel under 905(b).

In the case of Washington v. Nat’l Shipping Co. of Saudi Arabia, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 39658 (11th Cir. Dec. 17, 2020), the Eleventh Circuit reaffirmed the decision of the district court granting summary judgement to the ship owner on the grounds that it did not violate its turnover duty of safe condition wherein the hazardous nature of the equipment was open and obvious, and could have been avoided by a reasonably prudent stevedore.

Washington v. Nat’l Shipping Co. of Saudi Arabia – Background

In Washington, Frederick Washington, a longshoreman, was hired by the M/V Bahri Hofuf (“the Bahri”) to load and unload cargo. He was later injured when a trailer with steel coils uncoupled from its tractor, causing injuries to his shoulder and leg when he tried to run away. Mr. Washington and his wife subsequently filed suit against the vessel, alleging negligence under 905(b) of the LHWCA and loss of consortium.

Before the court, several witnesses testified that the use of safety chains would have likely avoided the accident. Notwithstanding, Bahri moved from summary judgement on both claims. The district court granted Bahri’s motion in both respects, holding that (1) Bahri had not violated any of the duties owed by vessels under 905(b); and (2) because Mr. Washington could not proceed under same, his wife’s claim was likewise precluded.

Mr. Washington subsequently appealed the court’s ruling and disputed the finding that Bahri satisfied the 905(b) duty to turn over a vessel in a safe condition.

The Appeal to the Eleventh Circuit

On review, the Eleventh Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling. The court noted that, as a preliminary matter, the turnover duty encompasses two separate components, which consists of the duty to turn over the ship and its equipment in safe condition, in addition to the corollary duty to warn the stevedore of any hidden dangers. The court disagreed with Mr. Washington’s interpretation of the duty and noted that since the time of the proceedings before the district court, the Eleventh Circuit had allowed for an open and obvious defense for negligence claims under the turnover duty of safe condition.

The court looked to the fact that per his contract with the vessel, Mr. Washington had sole discretion over the use of the vessel’s equipment and it was his responsibility to determine whether the equipment satisfied the standards enumerated by OSHA. Moreover, the court additionally found credence in the fact that several of Mr. Washington’s co-workers had commented on the unsafe nature of the equipment around the time of the accident, thereby notifying Mr. Washington of the potentially dangerous nature. Thus, given that the hazardous nature of the equipment was open and obvious and could have been avoided by a reasonably competent stevedore, Bahri satisfied its legal duty to turn over the vessel in safe condition.