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Maritime Update: Falling Seaman's Claims Rejected

On February 12, 2014, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment in favor of a vessel owner/operator in a suit brought by a Croatian seaman injured when he fell from a pilot's ladder while attempting to disembark from an ocean going vessel onto the deck of a crewboat in the case of Boris Radan v. Stolt-Nielsen, Inc., et al.  This case holds that, under general maritime law, a water taxi owner/operator does not owe a duty to a seaman disembarking from his employer's vessel.

A.   Facts

Boris Radan, a seaman aboard the cargo vessel M/V STOLT PRIDE, fell from a pilot's ladder while attempting to disembark from the STOLT PRIDE onto the deck of a crewboat, the LITTLE RAY.  The STOLT PRIDE was moored to the Kinder Morgan/Delta Terminal facility on the Mississippi River in Harvey, Louisiana.  The STOLT PRIDE hired a water taxi, the LITTLE RAY, to take plaintiff to shore, and provided a pilot's ladder for Mr. Radan to use in making a thirty foot descent from the STOLT PRIDE to the LITTLE RAY. 

Plaintiff filed suit against Stolt-Nielsen, the owner/operator of the terminal facility, Kinder-Morgan, and the owner/operator of the LITTLE RAY, Port Ship Service, Inc. ("Port Ship").  Plaintiff settled with Stolt-Nielsen and Kinder Morgan.  Prior to trial, Port Ship moved to have plaintiff's suit dismissed.  The trial court determined that Port Ship had no duty to Mr. Radan and dismissed his suit.  Mr. Radan appealed.

B.   Discussion

On appeal, plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in finding that Port Ship owed no duty to him.  Radan maintained that Port Ship had inadequate lighting on the LITTLE RAY and should have provided a deckhand to assist him with the transfer.  He further argued that Port Ship owed him a duty of reasonable care because he was a passenger on the LITTLE RAY. 

The Fourth Circuit noted that a fundamental non-delegable duty of a Jones Act employer (Stolt-Nielsen) was to supply a reasonably safe ingress and egress for its crew members (Radan) to and from its vessel.  And this duty could not be palmed off onto the crewboat. 

To establish negligence against a non-employer ship owner under the general maritime law, the plaintiff must demonstrate that there was a duty owed to him by the defendant, a breach of that duty, injury sustained by the plaintiff, and a causal connection between the defendant's conduct and the plaintiff's injury.

Plaintiff testified that his left foot slipped as he was descending from the STOLT PRIDE because the pilot's ladder was wet from rain.  He agreed that, if his foot would not have slipped, the accident would not have occurred.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed and held that Stolt-Nielsen owed plaintiff a duty; Radan was not a passenger aboard the LITTLE RAY when the accident occurred; and Port Ship owned no duty to plaintiff. 

C.   Why is this important?

1. Testimony from a plaintiff that his foot slipped could be all the evidence needed to have his suit dismissed. 

2.  Jones Act employers must be mindful of the non-delegable duty they have to supply a reasonably safe ingress and egress for their crew members to and from their vessels.

3.  The non-delegable duty a Jones Act employer has to provide a reasonably safe way for its crew to get on and off its vessels can be used by water taxi owners/operators like Port Ship to escape liability in similar cases.

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