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Fifth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Jones Act/Unseaworthiness Suit

On December 21, 2022, the Louisiana Court of Appeal, Fifth Circuit affirmed a judgment in favor of PBC Management, Inc., Florida Marine Transporters, Inc. and Florida Marine, LLC ("Defendants") in the case of Soudelier v. PBC Management Inc.  This opinion underscores that Louisiana courts require more than an accident to impose liability under the Jones Act and/or general maritime law.

A.  Background

Defendants employed plaintiff, Jeffrey Soudelier, Jr. ("Capt. Soudelier"), as a captain.  Capt. Soudelier was ordered to move a defective crossover hose from a tank barge to the deck of the M/V SEVEN M BRYAN to return the hose.  Capt. Soudelier met with his crew to plan the hose move.  At Capt. Soudelier's direction, they lifted the hose and carried it from the tank barge to the deck of the M/V STEVEN M BRYAN.  Capt. Soudelier positioned himself under a pipeline on the tank barge and could not stand up straight during the move.  After lifting his section of the hose and taking his first steps, Capt. Soudelier felt a "pop" in his hip and stopped the task.  Afterwards he "walked off" his pain and proceeded to lift the hose as planned.  Capt. Soudelier felt pain as he went to the wheelhouse to prepare an accident report.

Capt. Soudelier filed a Seaman's Petition for Damages seeking damages under the Jones Act, for unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure because he injured his lower back.  Following a bench trial, the trial court rendered judgment in favor of Defendants, and found Capt. Soudelier 1) failed to evaluate whether there was any residual product in the crossover hose; 2) decided to lift and carry a hose that should have been dragged; 3) assigned himself to the job of heavy manual labor, despite having two prior lifting incidents; 4) positioned himself under the barge pipeline so that he was unable to use safe lifting posture; and 5) after feeling pain on his first lift, decided to continue the operation of lifting and carrying the hose, despite knowing that he was injured and the hose was heavier than anticipated.

B.  Discussion

On appeal, Capt. Soudelier maintained the trial court erred in finding Defendants free of fault without engaging in a comparative fault analysis.  The Fifth Circuit found the evidence presented at trial supported the trial court's determinations on the causes of action under the Jones Act or liability under negligent per se theory and did not find the trial court's allocation of fault manifestly erroneous. 

On appeal, Capt. Soudelier also argued the trial court deviated from admiralty law by applying a contributory negligence standard to his neglect and on its overestimation of the legal effect of his position as master.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed that Capt. Soudelier failed to prove that he or his crew were not properly trained.       

C.  Why Is This Important?

1. A plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the unseaworthy condition played a substantial part in bringing about or actually causing the injury and that the injury was either a direct result or reasonably probable consequence of the unseaworthiness.

2. Unseaworthiness is not established by an accident occurring.

3. A plaintiff must prove that his/her employer breached its duty of care (ordinary prudence under the circumstances) to recover damages under the Jones Act.

W. Brett Mason is a Member at Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann L.L.C. and advises companies doing business in Louisiana in their desire to evaluate and manage maritime risk by counseling them on changes in law and aggressively protecting their interests should a dispute arise.

W. Brett Mason | 225.490.5812 | bmason@stonepigman.com

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