Floating Work Platform Not a Vessel
On November 4, 2022, the Louisiana, First Circuit Court of Appeal, in the case Jackson v. Chem Carriers, LLC, reversed a ruling in favor of a Plaintiff who sued his employer for damages under the Jones Act because of a fall on a barge. The opinion is significant because it underscores that a work platform not used to transport personnel or equipment over navigable waters in 19 years is not a vessel.
Plaintiff, Clarence Jackson ("Plaintiff"), was employed as a welding foreman by Plaquemine Point Shipyard, LLC ("PPS") on a barge used as a ship repair facility. The PPS repair facility consisted of a number of barges including the TT-24602 ("TT Barge"); the PPS-10 barge ("PPS-10"); the Tucker barge; a shop barge, etc.
On October 20, 2016, Plaintiff was welding on the TT Barge. Workers on the PPS-10 reported that their welding machine was not working. Plaintiff went onto the PPS-10 to fix it. Plaintiff tripped over a welding lead on the PPS-10 and fell.
On October 30, 2018, Plaintiff sued PPS, Chem Carriers, LLC and their insurers as a "seaman" under the Jones Act or alternatively, under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act. ("LHWCA"). At the conclusion of a bench trial, the court found the vessels were owned and controlled by PPS and were part of an identifiable fleet of vessels. The court also found that the PPS-10 was a vessel in navigation and that Plaintiff was a seaman. Accordingly, it rendered judgment in favor of Plaintiff and against PPS for $1,000,000 plus maintenance and cure. The claims against Chem Carriers, LLC and Chem Carrier Towing, LLC were dismissed. PPS and its insurer appealed.
Two issues raised on appeal were 1) the trial court's determination that the PPS-10 barge was a vessel is manifestly erroneous and clear error; and 2) the trial court's determination that Plaintiff was a seaman is manifestly erroneous and clear error.
First, the appellate court found that a reasonable observer, looking to the PPS-10's activities, would not consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water. Thus, there was no reasonable factual basis for the trial court to find that the PPS-10 was a vessel.
The appellate court also examined whether Plaintiff was a seaman. It found Plaintiff did not establish a substantial connection to a PPS vessel or fleet vessels as it related to his work as a welder or a connection to a vessel that was substantial in nature and duration.
The Louisiana First Circuit reversed the trial court's findings of liability against PPS under the Jones Act, reversed the damage awards rendered in favor of Plaintiff and against PPS and/or its insurer, and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.
D. Why Is This Important?
1. Whether a floating structure is a vessel is a factual question.
2. Developing favorable facts associated with vessel status can lead to victory on the issue of vessel status.
3. An employee's duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or the accomplishment of its mission to be a seaman.
4. An employee's connection to a vessel in navigation must be substantial in nature and duration to be a seaman.
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 protecting their interests should a dispute arise.
W. Brett Mason | 225.490.5812 | firstname.lastname@example.org