Court of Appeals Upholds Trial Court Ruling Granting Longshoreman’s Workers Compensation Claim

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently affirmed in principal part, the trial court’s ruling granting a longshoreman damages for a workers’ compensation claim. Benjamin McCuller and his wife, Miranda McCuller, sued Nautical Ventures, L.L.C., under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA), 33 U.S.C. § 905(b), after Benjamin, who was working as a longshoreman, was injured when he fell while descending a ladder on a ship owned by Nautical. Mr. McCuller was working for Halliburton Energy Services at a marine terminal in Fourchon, Louisiana when he was injured after one of the ladder rungs broke during his descent.

The bulk of the appeals court opinion discussed whether Halliburton, Nautical, or Mr. McCuller was at fault for the injuries suffered by Mr. McCuller. First, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that Nautical had breached its “turnover duty” when it deployed a defective ladder, which had been damaged during a sea deployment several weeks before Mr. McCuller’s fall. “The ‘turnover duty’ relates to the condition of the ship upon the commencement of stevedoring operations” and “requires a vessel to exercise ordinary care under the circumstances to turn over the ship and its equipment in such condition that an expert and experienced stevedoring contractor, mindful of the dangers he should reasonably expect to encounter will be able by the exercise of ordinary care to carry on cargo operations with reasonable safety to persons and property.” This specific duty is the statutory basis for the McCullers’ claim as codified in the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. In other words, this tort statute places upon the ship owner the duty to discover and fix potentially dangerous ship defects after a ship returns from sea. In the case at hand, the court found that an expert inspecting the ship should have discovered the crack in the ladder. Therefore, the appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Nautical was at fault for Mr. McCuller’s injuries because it was negligent in breaching its turnover duty by providing a faulty ladder for his use. However, it should be pointed out that the damages were reduced because Mr. McCuller was found to be 30% at fault for carrying a clipboard down the ladder when he was injured. But, the appeals court made clear that Mr. McCuller in no way had a duty to discover and fix the defective ladder.

However, the appeals court also made clear that there are certain circumstances when Mr. McCuller and/or Halliburton (his employer) would have a duty to discover potentially dangerous ship defects. In other words, there is one significant exception to the “turnover duty.” That is, if the defect causing the injury is or should be “open and obvious” to a reasonable longshoreman or stevedore-employer, than the ship owner cannot be held liable for the resulting damages. However, in the instant case the trial court found, and the appeals court agreed, that the crack in the ladder was not, and should not have been “open and obvious” to a reasonable stevedore and/or longshoreman.

The fact is, determining what constitutes an “open and obvious” defect can be a difficult factual question, which takes lots of time and resources to discover. In the instant case, it took scores of witness and expert testimony to convince the court that the defect was not “open and obvious.” Moreover, in addition to the “open and obvious” exception, there are countless other exceptions to tort laws that could potentially prevent an injured individual from recovering the damages he/she deserves. Therefore, if you have been injured at work it is important you contact an attorney or law firm that has the legal expertise and resources to determine if your injuries were the result of negligence; and if so, to get you the legal compensation you deserve.