Offshore drilling platforms enable petroleum companies to access oil deposits beneath the ocean floor. Although these platforms are anchored to the sea floor, they are technically movable and can be relocated. Whether a platform is considered “immovable property” under Louisiana law became a central issue in a case involving an injured worker because different prescription periods apply to personal injury claims depending on the nature of the property at which the injury occurred.
In 2002, McDermott, Inc. designed and delivered the Front Runner Spar, an offshore facility used for removing and processing petroleum from the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico, to Murphy Exploration & Production Company. Murphy affixed the platform to the sea floor at the edge of the continental shelf offshore from Louisiana. James Hefren was hired by Murphy as the lead operator. In June, 2011, Hefren was injured when he was struck in the face by the flange of a valve. He filed a lawsuit suit against Murphy for negligence under the Jones Act, as well as specifically alleging that McDermott failed to properly design and construct the facility. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana entered summary judgment for Murphy, dismissing Hefren’s tort claims as barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.
McDermott filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Hefren’s claims were barred by Louisiana’s rule that actions arising out of deficiencies in construction or design must be brought within five years after the date the property was accepted by the owner. See La. R.S. 9:2772. Holding that the Front Runner Spar was an “immovable object” under Louisiana law, and considering that nine years had passed between Murphy’s acceptance of the facility and the date Hefren’s lawsuit was filed, the district court dismissed the claim against McDermott.
Hefren appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He argued that since the Front Runner Spar could be uninstalled from its current location, it was not “immovable property” and thus didn’t fall within the purview of La. R.S. 9:2772. The Fifth Circuit’s analysis began with Louisiana’s Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”), since the Front Runner Spar was located on the outer continental shelf adjacent to the state. Under the law, any defective design claim is preempted if the claim is brought after five years. See KSLA-TV, Inc. v. Radio Corp. of Am., 732 F.2d 441 (5th Cir. 1984). Previously, the Fifth Circuit recognized that a fixed offshore drilling platform was “immovable property” within the meaning of a different Louisiana statute, focusing on the fact that the facility resembled a fixed drilling platform. Here, the Court reconsidered the question in light of the OCSLA. Ultimately, the Court concluded that the Front Runner Spar was “immovable property” because significant time, effort, and planning would be required to move the structure. See Fields v. Pool Offshore Inc., 182 F.3d 353, 355 (5th Cir. 1999). Therefore, Hefren’s action against McDermott was filed too late.
Hefren’s case highlights the interplay between federal and state law, as well as the importance of filing a petition for damages without undue delay after an injury. Anyone who is injured through the fault of another should seek the counsel of an experienced attorney immediately to ensure their claim is not barred due to a legal technicality.
Additional Source: HEFREN v. McDERMOTT, INC.
Written by Berniard Blog Writer: Ashley Walker
Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Time-Barred Claims: Louisiana Legal Malpractice Case Examines Res Judicata and Peremption Exceptions