Articles Posted in Offshore Accidents

A class action suit occurs when a group of people bring a case together as representatives of an entire class of people who are similarly situated. In order to bring a class action in Louisiana, a judge must certify the class. This means that the class of plaintiffs meets the requirements for their class action to go forward. One of the requirements a class must meet to be certified is that it must have what is known as numerosity. In Louisiana numerosity is defined as meaning that the class is too large for the individual plaintiffs to pursue their claims separately or it is too large for the individual plaintiffs to be joined to the case in a practical manner. The following case illustrates what happens when questions about numerosity arise in a class action.

On May 15, 2009 a vacuum truck owned and operated by Environmental Services, Inc. was driving on Louisiana Highway 27 between Singer and DeQuincy when a valve broke and 300-500 gallons of motor oil leaked out onto the highway. The leak was discovered when the truck arrived in DeQuincy, and the impacted portion of the highway was closed within approximately 15 minutes of the truck’s arrival.

The plaintiffs seeking to certify this class action brought suit alleging that they suffered physical injury due to inhaling the fumes from the spilled motor oil and also alleged that they suffered damage to their vehicles and livestock in their vehicles from driving over the spilled oil. The plaintiffs sought to certify a class that included everyone who drove over the spilled oil before it was cleaned up.

Over the years, major advances in the field of transportation have made it relatively easy for people to move about the country. Many people find themselves in indefinite living situations, changing jobs, going to college or maybe just moving to a new area. In these types of circumstances, ownership may not be all that intriguing or feasible. Luckily, on the other end of the spectrum, there are usually handfuls of owners looking to rent or lease out their property. This perfect alignment of supply and demand leads to frequent property agreements. Although one hopes that everything runs smoothly throughout the occupation, inevitably sometimes accidents or problems may occur.

One specific type of problem that can be faced deals with the question of who is responsible for injuries or damages that result from a defect in the premises in which someone is not the owner. It is also important to note that agreements involving homeownership are not the only circumstances in which these particular problems may arise. Alternatively, one may find themselves injured somewhere they are visiting or momentarily staying at such as a hotel, museum, or baseball game.

In the state of Louisiana, in order to recover under the theory of premises liability, the plaintiff has the burden of proof. The plaintiff would likely be the one who does not own the premises and has been injured in some way. The plaintiff’s burden under Louisiana law consists of proving four things: 1) that the injuries were caused by a defect in the defendant’s premises that created an unreasonable risk of harm to the plaintiff; 2) that the defendant knew or should have known of the defect; 3) that the damage could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care; and, 4) that the defendant failed to exercise such reasonable care.

The term wrongful death refers to cases in which the decedent’s death was the fault of another. The other “person” could be one individual, such as someone driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol; it could also be a group of people or a business, such as the decedent’s employers or the manufacturers of a product whose defect or malfunctioning resulted in the user’s death. Wrongful death lawsuits may be initiated by family members of the decedent in order to obtain monetary benefits, such as for wages the decedent would have earned if he were still alive. Before filing a lawsuit, it is important to establish whether the person bringing the case has standing to do so. Standing indicates that the moving party has a sufficient connection to or is substantially affected by the harm being alleged, in this case the wrongful death of the victim.

In order to bring a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff must have standing as a close relative of the deceased. The first family members who would be favored to have standing would be the decedent’s spouse and children. Louisiana Civil Code states that the surviving mother or father of the deceased may only have standing if there is no spouse or child surviving the decedent. If the deceased had no surviving parents, spouse or child, then his or her brothers or sisters would have standing to bring a lawsuit. Finally, if the decedent had no surviving siblings, spouse, parents or children, then his or her grandparents would have standing to file a wrongful death claim. Note that a mother or father who abandoned the decedent while he or she was still a minor would not have standing.

Though children are the first to have standing in a wrongful death case, standing may be challenged when the parentage is called into question. A Louisiana court stated that “a filiation action inherently accompanies an illegitimate child’s wrongful death and survival action.” Thus, children born out of wedlock, that is, to parents who were not married at the time of birth, must be able to prove paternity in order to have standing. According to Louisiana law, a husband will be presumed to be the parent of a child when the child is born within 300 days of the termination of a marriage (300 being considered the maximum possible time of gestation). Outside of this exception, proceedings must be conducted to establish standing.

The Jones Act deals with injuries suffered by employees working on American sea-going vessels and their rights to workers’ compensation for those injuries. The Act requires employers to “maintain a reasonably safe work environment.” Another important feature of the Jones Act is that not only is the employer liable for the negligence of their employees, but also any amount of negligence on the employer’s part will result in some level of liability. In other words, in a Jones Act case, if one employee negligently injures another, both the offendin employee and their employer are liable.

The case of Martinez v. Offshore Specialty Fabricators, Inc. deals with a Jones Act claim and really brings to light how important it is to obtain quality legal representation. Mr. Martinez was a seaman employed by Offshore Specialty Fabricators as a mechanic. On May 26, 2008, he and his supervisor, Mr. Smith, went aboard a ship owned by Offshore to repair a defective winch. Both Martinez and Smith testified that the work space was very cramped and required them to bend over while swinging a sledgehammer for almost an hour when suddenly Martinez felt a pop in his neck. Smith testified that he saw Martinez visibly twitch and asked what was wrong. Martinez informed him that something was wrong with his neck, and Smith immediately told him stop working.

Shortly after the injury he told an on-board medic about soreness in his arm due to using the sledgehammer. Two days later Martinez visited another medic and told him that he was unable to move his head or jaw without shooting pain in his neck and shoulder. He was also interviewed by a claims adjuster hired by Offshore and told the adjuster that his injury was due to the cramped working conditions and hammering.

Under Louisiana law, there are very specific rules about how to properly serve someone, and one of the important aspects of service that an attorney has to get right is the timing of it. Furthermore, not only does the service have to be carried out in a timely manner, but it also has to be perfected properly.

This particular Supreme Court of Louisiana case dealt with service on a state entity, and it is important for your attorney to be aware of any differences that exist with regard to service requirements depending on who the other party is. According to the applicable state law, La. R.S. 13:850, “perfecting” a service request requires that the appropriate filing fees and transmission fees have been received by the clerk of the court and that the original signed document has been received by the clerk. All of this must be received within the proper timeframe. As stated in La. R.S. 13:850, the proper timeframe for perfection in this case is seven days.

In this case, the service request was received within the required ninety-day timeframe (ninety days since the filing of the petition), and the service request was perfected five days later once the requisite documents and fee payments were received by the clerk of the court. The question then is whether or not this counts as proper request for service: Was the request for service properly received within ninety days even though perfection of the request was outside of that ninety-day timeframe?

In order to aid the court, a judge might occasionally appoint an expert to help with specific aspects of the case. Court-appointed experts are different from a specific party’s experts because the court-appointed experts do not favor one side or the other, but rather, help the judge with certain tasks or analyses.

A trial court-appointed expert can be especially useful in a class action lawsuit in which several people have a claim against the defendant and there is no way that the court can hear each individual person’s case. In that instance, a court-appointed expert can help properly group the members of the class action lawsuit and help bring order to an otherwise unwieldy case.

In a recent case from Orleans Parish, the appellate court had to determine when a court-appointed expert is proper and what the limits of such an expert’s duties should be. Before getting into the applicable Louisiana law and how the appellate court ultimately ruled, some knowledge of the background facts is useful: The case from Orleans Parish was a class action lawsuit in which several employees were suing over medical problems they experienced from working in a building that had serious mold damage. Over 600 individuals had claims in the suit, and in order to deal with the case in a more organized and manageable manner, the class was to be broken up into various groups. In order to help with this enormous task, the trial court stated that it wanted to appoint an expert to help group individuals according to damages. Each party was allowed to submit nominations and discuss any issues they felt might arise if such an expert was appointed. Ultimately, an expert was appointed to help with the necessary tasks, and after the case was decided at the trial court level, the State argued that the court-appointed expert had outstepped his appropriate boundaries.

The United States of America was founded on a Constitution that still serves as the supreme law of the land in our country today. Each state created its own constitution to be the supreme law throughout the state and second only to the Constitution of the United States. Many claims are made throughout the United States are based on the constitutionality of particular laws or statutes enacted by different states. However, very few of these challenges will ever make it to the Supreme Court of the United States where a final decision can be made on the the constitutionality of a challenged law.  For an appellate court to rule on a constitutional challenge,  it must have been “properly raised and pleaded in the trial court below.” This means that the sole issue of the case at bar must be a determination on the constitutionality of a particular state action.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in Louisiana heard a case where this exact issue and rule was raised. It arose from a claim made by Mr. Vincent E. Johnson against Motiva Enterprises, LLC (“Motiva”) for damages arising out of his exposure to toxic chemicals while working at a Motiva refinery in Norco, LA. The constitutional issue arose because Motiva had protected themselves from being sued by the plaintiff because of a contract with its direct employers. Therefore, this case turned more onto the issue of the validity of this contractual agreement between and employer (Motiva) and employee (Mr. Johsnon).

The trial court found that the contract was valid and refused to deliver an opinion on the constitutionality issue of the Louisiana statute allowing for this particular contract. It is a known fact that courts shy away from determining the constitutionality of legislation unless the resolution of the constitutional issue is absolutely essential to the decision of the case.

In a recent case, Johnson v. University Medical Center in Lafayette, the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit reversed a trial court decision to dismiss a plaintiff’s case for abandonment due to her failure to timely pay the costs of appeal. The plaintiff in the case, Lela Johnson, originally filed a medical malpractice action against both the University Medical Center in Lafayette and the Medical Center of Louisiana in New Orleans. The case has proceeded through courts since the original petition for damages was filed on March 15, 2006.

Both defendants, whose principal places of business correspond with the last word of their names, are operated by the State of Louisiana. After a dismissal of her original suit by the Supreme Court of Louisiana due to her failure to properly notify the defendants of the action because she had requested service of process on individuals who had not been individuals who were authorized to accept such information on behalf of the defendants, Ms. Johnson’s decided to re-file the original suit in trial court. Once again, Ms. Johnson’s service of process was held insufficient by the trial court and she moved to appeal that judgment.

Service of process is a legal term of art which essentially describes the process in which plaintiffs notify defendants of a pending suit. When the plaintiff files a complaint with a court, any defendant in the case must be given notice of the pending case and an opportunity to be heard and defend themselves against the complaint. This requirement is a basic constitutional right conferred upon everyone who has been accused of some wrongdoing and it is the accuser’s responsibility to ensure that the constitutional right of the accused is protected. The importance of service of process to our legal system and the rights of defendants makes it necessary for trial courts to dismiss actions, without regard to the merits of the plaintiff’s claims, if service of process is deficient in some way or another.

In September 2006, Georgia Gulf Lake Charles, LLC’s Westlake facility suffered a fire and explosion. Because of the fire and explosion, hazardous chemicals were released into the air. Several people filed suit because of the medical complications that the exposure caused. Georgia Gulf stipulated that it was the cause of the chemical release, but argued that the release did not cause the Plaintiff’s medical complications and that it should not be charged damages. The trial court disagreed and awarded the Plaintiffs damages. Georgia Gulf appealed.

Georgia Gulf’s major concerns were about two major decisions of the trial court. The first was that the trial court excluded their expert witness. Second, the lower court found a link between the Plaintiff’s symptoms and the chemical exposure, which Georgia Gulf argued did not really exist.

In Louisiana, the Court of Appeals reviews these types of decisions with great deference to the lower court. The lower court gets to see all of the witnesses and hear the testimony whereas the Court of Appeals generally does not. As such, the lower court may be a better judge of character and credibility because they actually see the person making the testimony and can observe their demeanor and evaluate how truthful they seem. The court is set up in this way so that people do not have to come back repeatedly to testify and attorneys do not have to present the same evidence to different people again; it is a matter of convenience and timesaving for everyone involved.

The appellate court differed with the trial court on the validity of a compromise when Louisiana company D.R.D. Towing was sued by a crew member on D.R.D.’s ship.

Mr. Randy Rudolph was a crew member of the M/V RUBY E, which was struck by another ship while he was on board. The collision threw him from his bunk, causing injuries to his back. Additionally, Mr. Rudolph lost his personal computer, cell phone, car keys and other items when the ship sank. He filed suit against D.R.D. Towing, the operator of the M/V RUBY E.

The issue for the court was whether Mr. Rudolph’s signing a release settling all claims for $3,000 a few days after the incident precluded him from collecting further money for his injuries. He argued that he understood the $3,000 was offered to compensate him for what he lost on the boat, but not to cover his future claims, including medical expenses and loss of earning potential associated with his injuries.