Wisconsin District Court Addresses Different Claims Available to Different Maritime Workers

In a recent case, White v. Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding, the Wisconsin District Court addressed different claims available to different maritime workers, answering the question: was the plaintiff a seaman or a longshoreman?

White v. Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding – Background

In White v. Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding, No. 1:19-cv-946, 2019 U.S. Dist. Lexis 217259 (E.D. Wis. Dec. 18, 2019), Rodney White was a technician for Engine Motor, Inc. (EMI), a company contracted by Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding, Inc. (Fincantieri) to install steering equipment on the M/V Millville.  He sustained head and neck injuries while testing the steering equipment during sea trials of the Millville.

White filed suit alleging a claim under Section 905(b) of the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act; a claim for unseaworthiness under the Jones Act; a negligence claim under general maritime law; and various Wisconsin state law claims against Fincantieri, as well as Wawa, Inc., and Keystone Shipping, Inc., respectively the future owner and operator of the Millville.

Fincantieri moved to dismiss the claims of unseaworthiness, common law negligence, and state law punitive damages.

The Wisconsin District Court’s Ruling

The Wisconsin District Court dismissed the unseaworthiness claim on the grounds that White failed to state any facts that he was a seaman and not a longshoreman as a matter of law.

The court began its analysis by pointing out the mutual exclusivity of longshoreman status and entitlement to relief under the LHWCA and seaman status and entitlement to relief under the Jones Act. If a claimant is a longshoreman, he cannot also be a seaman. The court then noted that White alleged that he was employed by EMI “to provide shipbuilding and/or repairing services” for the Millville. Fincantieri argued that this description demonstrated that White was in fact a longshoreman, and not a seaman, and the court agreed, finding that White’s occupations were exactly those that Congress intended to cover under the Longshore Act—“ship repairman” and “shipbuilder.”

Additionally, the court noted that White alleged he was an employee of EMI—not a member of the vessel’s crew—further undermining his claim that he was a seaman of the Millville entitled to the warranty of seaworthiness. Because the warranty of seaworthiness extends only to seamen, White had not plausibly alleged facts on which relief for unseaworthiness could be granted.

Likewise, the court dismissed the state law claims as preempted by federal law. However, White could still seek punitive damages to the extent they are available under federal maritime law, that is, where a defendant’s conduct is “wanton, willful, or outrageous.”