Part 1: Louisiana Barge Case Showcases Divide and Conquer Strategy When Suing Multiple Defendants

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals for Louisiana released their decision in Cotone v. Corrosion Control Systems, Inc. The case highlights the importance of the plaintiff’s “divide and conquer” strategy when litigating against multiple defendants. Additionally, it illuminates the challenges defendants and plaintiffs may both face in lawsuits involving injuries occuring in settings controlled and occupied by multiple parties.

In 2006, Timothy Cotone was employed by Superior Derrick Services as a shipyard supervisor on a Lousisiana river barge. Superior was tasked with converting the barge into a drilling rig. In order to accelerate the conversion, Superior subcontracted temporary workers supplied by Maxum Industries to perform welding and fitting services. Meanwhile, Corrosion Control Systems was hired separately by the barge owner to provide sandblasting and painting services. Superior and Corrosion were separate companies otherwise unaffiliated with one another.

On November 3, 2006, Cotone stepped into an open hole on the barge and suffered injuries. Typically, the hole was barricaded by safety cables. However, when Cotone stepped into the hole, no such safety cables were in place. Furthermore, plastic had been placed over the whole, preventing Cotone from noticing the opening. Naturally, Cotone concluded that one of the other barge workers must have negligently removed the safety cables and placed the plastic over the hole. Consequently, he sued to recover for his injuries.

Faced with multiple actors who occupied and controlled the hole in question, Cotone originally sued only Corrosion. Later, by amended pleading, he added Maxum to his suit. Cotone’s amended lawsuit alleged that either a Corrosion or Maxum employee had negligently removed the safety cables, and both companies should therefore be jointly and severally liable. (Notably, Cotone did not name is own employer, Superior, as a defendant in the suit).

In a game of legal “hot potato,” Corrosion and Maxum each denied responsibility and implied that the other was to blame for Cotone’s injuries. When Maxum filed a motion for summary judgment to remove itself from suit, Corrosion resisted. Corrosion wanted Maxum to remain in the suit so it could share the cost of any damages award a jury might award to Cotone.

Maxum alleged that it had presented enough evidence to show that no trier of fact could conclude that a Maxum employee had removed the cables or placed the plastic over the hole. Because Maxum, as a defendant, would not have to bear the burden of proof in a subsequent trial, Maxum only needed to “point out that there [was an] absence of factual support for one or more” elements essential to an adverse party’s claim. Convinced of Maxum’s motion, the district court dismissed Maxum as a defendant. In response, Corrosion appealed.

In determining whether the dismissal of Maxum should stand, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals looked to the depositions of Cotone and Maxum employees, as well as documentation submitted by the company during the discovery phase of the litigation.

The court first looked to Cotone’s deposition. In it, Cotone noted that he was the last person to leave the barge on the evening before his accident. This fact suggested that the person responsible for removing the safety cables and adding the plastic committed the negligent act sometime in the evening between Cotone’s departure for the previous day and his arrival on the day of the injury. Cotone further asserted that Corrosion’s crew worked on the barge during the evenings.

Next, the court looked to an invoice provided by Maxum. The invoice showed that during the week surronding Cotone’s injury, the majority of Maxum’s workers completed assignments in the shipyard and away from the barge. Because most of Maxum’s employees were not working around the hole Cotone fell in, the liklihood of a Maxum employee removing the safety cables and adding the plastic was diminished.

Check out the blog tomorrow for more information on this important case.