Maritime Injury Leads to Lawsuit Against Employers Leads to Jurisdiction Issue

An employee working on the deck of a marine vessel suffered injuries to his back and hips after a crane moving equipment from the dock swung a cargo basket at him and pinned him to the ship. The employee sued the company operating the crane as well as his own employer who operated the ship he was loading.

The plaintiff-employee, Hamm, and the defendant-companies, Island Operating Company (IOC) and Rodan, disagree about what jurisdiction controls this case. The plaintiff argues that his claims fall under admiralty jurisdiction and as such elected to undertake a non-jury trial as allowed under Rule 9(h) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. But the defendant companies desire a jury trial and believe that the case falls under the Outer Continental Shelf lands Act (OCSLA).

What law is applicable in this case—admiralty or OCSLA—is determinative in this case due to the different statute of limitations. If the case falls under federal maritime law then the employee has three years to file his claim, but if the case falls under OCSLA then the case will fall under the law of the adjacent state (in this case, Louisiana) and the employee had to file his claim within a year. If OCSLA is found to be the applicable law then the employee’s claim will not be valid since he filed suit fifteen months after the accident. If federal maritime law applies, then not only will Hamm be entitled to the non-jury trial he wants, but Rodan and IOC will not be able to throw the case out.

The district court found for Hamm, deciding that the case should be classified as an admiralty suit. IOC appealed, arguing that Hamm’s claims are time-barred under OCSLA’s statute of limitation or, alternatively, that it is entitled to a jury trial. Hamm countered with the argument that the trial court made the correct decision in holding federal maritime law as the governing law. The appellate court agreed, upholding the trial court’s holding.

The court must look to three different elements when deciding if the law of the adjacent state applies under OCSLA: a) the controversy must arise on structures covered by OCSLA like those attached to the subsoil or seabed; b) federal maritime law must not apply of its own force; and c) the state law must not be inconsistent with federal law. The appellate court rejected OCSLA as the governing law because, in this case, federal maritime law does apply. In order to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction, Hamm needed to prove that both the location of his accident and the manner of which the accident occurred were connected with maritime activity. Hamm suffered his injury aboard a ship so the location factor is satisfied and he suffered his injury while helping to load cargo onto said ship which is clearly a maritime commerce activity.

Since this is a maritime tort action, federal maritime law applies of its own force and Hamm’s claims against IOC and Rodan are not time-barred. A statute of limitations period of three years applies and Hamm is well within his rights to demand a non-jury trial under the federal maritime law.

If you were injured while working in the maritime community and wish to pursue a claim, please contact Berniard Law firm for assistance.