In October of 2009 a man was injured on a tugboat near Amelia, Louisiana, while attempting to do his duty as a deckhand. Two major issues came up in this case when it went to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. First, the deckhand had to prove that he did not cause or partially cause his own injury. Second, he also had to demonstrate that the damages he was awarded at the District Court level were not excessive. Both of these factors were proven and the injured man was awarded approximately $1.3 million in damages.
The deckhand in this case was on a small tugboat and attempted to transfer a big barge that they were hauling to another larger tugboat. The small tugboat crew made the transfer in the very early morning hours and while the sea was quite rough. The deckhand was injured when his tugboat dipped in a wave; a wire came untied, and struck him. He was thrown against a wall, which knocked him unconscious. As a result, he had fractures in two of his vertebrae and wore a back brace for a month before a serious surgery that fused his vertebrae together. He also has serious pain issues that will have to be controlled with a pain pump, which gives pain medication directly to the spinal cord, or the continued use of oral pain medication. His pain issues will likely continue for the rest of his life.
In order to collect damages, the deckhand needed to prove that his injury was not also partially his own fault because he was being careless. In legal terms, this is known as contributory negligence. This was a major issue because at the time that the deckhand was injured, he was in what was called a “pressure zone.” The pressure zone basically assumes that the portion of the deck in which he was standing was more dangerous at the time of the transfer than the other portions of the deck. This is because a wire that the boats used to transfer was tight at that portion of the deck, so if it came loose then the deckhands would lose control of it. The court determined that he did not contribute to his injury in this case because he was following the orders of his captain when he was injured. Previous case law has stated that individuals following orders cannot have contributory negligence because their superiors put them in that situation.
Once the court determined that the deckhand did not contribute to his injury, it awarded damages. The District Court awarded money for future lost wages, past pain and suffering, future pain and suffering, future medical expenses, and maintenance. The Court of Appeals will only reverse an excessive damage award when it is completely unreasonable. The court attempts to determine reasonableness by comparing the case to other similar cases. If a damage award is 133% more than a similar case then it might be excusive.
In this case, the court had a problem because there are very few cases to compare with this type of incident. The fact that the injury happened while on the water made it difficult because the comparison case should have happened under similar conditions and the victim should have a similar injury. The court looked to two cases that had similar injuries or similar situations. In those cases, the awards were either similar or slightly higher, so it determined that the damages were not excessive.
The deckhand in this case suffered a serious injury that resulted in a lifetime of pain problems and various surgeries and medical issues. He did not contribute to his own injury so the court awarded damages. Although the damages amounted to a large amount of money, the Court of Appeals determined that the damages are similar to other cases and therefore not excessive. Competent legal counsel can help you through all of these issues should the need arise.
If you have been injured, contact the Berniard Law Firm Toll Free at 1-866-574-8005 and we will be happy to help you.