Case of West Feliciana Drowning Demonstrates Importance of “Navigability”

Oftentimes, the most important question in an injury lawsuit is not “Can I recover?” Rather, the crucial questions involve whom to seek recovery from and where – i.e., in which court – to do that. Sometimes the answer lies simply in where the accident and injury occurred. However, as an older case from West Feliciana Parish indicates, proving that fact is not always as straightforward as it seems.

The case of Crum v. Southshore Railway Company, (230 So.2d 100 (1969)), revolves around the tragic drowning of John Floyd Crum. Mr. Crum was an employee of Southshore Railway Company. While working on a sand and gravel dredge, Crum fell into the water and drowned because he could not swim.Further, the boat on which he was working was not equipped with life-saving devices and was, generally speaking, poorly maintained.

From those facts, it would appear that Southshore would be legally responsible for the circumstances of Mr. Crum’s death. However, this was not the issue that this particular case focused. Rather, the important issue was whether the court had jurisdiction over the matter. The jurisdiction issue would be determined by whether the case fell under the federal statute known as the Jones Act (46 U.S.C. § 30101) or under Louisiana’s Workmen’s Compensation Act. The Jones Act permits injured seamen to recover damages from their employers for accidents that occur “on navigable waters.” Thus, if Mr. Crum’s accident happened on a navigable body of water, his estate could seek damages from Southshore under the Jones Act. Otherwise, Mr. Crum’s family and legal team would have to rely upon the state workers’ compensation program.

Mr. Crum drowned in a pond near Highway 61 and Thompson’s Creek, which divides East and West Feliciana Parishes. Mr. Crum’s representative’s argued that the accident occurred in the waters of Thompson’s Creek and that the creek, as a tributary of the Mississippi River, was a navigable water of the United States. The railway company argued the opposite, that the pond was not part of the creek and not navigable water. The court agreed with the employer, meaning that the Jones Act did not cover Crum’s accident:

It is clear that the pond is not navigable, within any accepted definition of that term, nor was it created for any navigational purpose, nor is it connected with any body of water so as to permit the passage of boats of any size or to permit the conduction of commerce under the normal modes of travel and trade on water. Therefore… the law seems to be clear that this man-made pond on privately owned lands is not a navigable stream within the meaning of the Jones Act and general maritime law.

The Crum case illustrates how seemingly straightforward facts can alter the outcome of a lawsuit. Further, it illustrates the complexity of legal issues and what compensation a family might receive due to such a tragedy. It is important that persons who are injured have competent and conscientious counsel who will know how to properly address these decisive issues.

If you have questions about your legal rights or the rights of a loved one following an accident, the attorneys at The Berniard Law Firm are available to speak with you.