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Court Affirms Seamen Wrongful Death and Personal Injury Damages Award

Estis_Rig_23-300x188The Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals have affirmed a trial court’s damages award in a Jones Act seamen’s wrongful death and personal injury lawsuit.  The case involved an accident aboard a barge supporting a truck-mounted drilling rig (pictured to the right).  On March 9, 2011, crewmembers of the barge were attempting to straighten a catwalk extending from the rig’s derrick which had twisted the night before.  While preforming this maneuver, the truck and rig toppled over fatally pinning one crewmember between the derrick and the mud tank.  Three other crewmembers sustained personal injuries in the accident.

The personal representative of the decedent seaman, along with the injured seaman, filed lawsuits under the Jones Act and general maritime law against the employer drilling company.  The drilling company conceded liability but contested the damages sought by the estate and the survivors.   After a trial lasting a week, the judge issued a judgment awarding damages to the decedent crewmember’s estate for pre-death fear and conscious pain and suffering as well as lost of past and future financial support of his dependent daughter.  The court also awarded, among other categories of damages, future medical expenses and lost future earnings to the surviving seamen.  The drilling company appealed the award.

Challenge to Damages Awarded to the Decedent Seaman

Concerning the estate, the company argued the judge erroneously awarded damages for pre-death fear and conscious pain and suffering contending that the evidence shows the decedent was not conscious after impact and could not have suffered.  Under the Jones Act, an estate of a seaman who died while working aboard a vessel can recover for pre-death pain and suffering including damages for the victim’s emotional injury caused by fear of physical injury to himself.  To be awarded theses damages, however, the personal representative of the estate must prove the seaman was conscious after realizing his danger.  The appellate court found that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that the decedent crewmember experienced pre-death fear as one of the eye witnesses testified seeing him run for his life immediately prior to impact, photographs of the accident scene showed the body positioned in a defensive posture to protect himself from the falling rig and a pathologist testified that the seaman would have been conscious and aware for up to five minuets after impact.

The employer also challenged the loss of support and services damages awarded to the surviving daughter.  It argued the evidence submitted to the court was too speculative to support the award.  The company also argued that the award should be reduced to the amount the seaman was paying in child support prior to his death.  These arguments were also rejected by the appellate court.

Challenge to Damages Awarded to the Injured Seaman

Concerning the injured seaman, the employer argued that the award for future medical expenses was erroneous because it required the company to pay medical expenses beyond the crewmember’s date of maximum medical improvement.  Maritime law places an obligation upon an employer to pay for an injured seaman’s medical care and living expenses up to the point of maximum medical improvement.  A seaman, however, can be awarded future medical expenses beyond maximum medical improvement under the Jones Act.    The appellate court rejected the employer’s argument finding that the order was clear that a portion of the damages were to be paid under the maintenance and cure obligation up to the point of maximum medical cure then additional medical damages were to be paid under the Jones Act claim.

Finally, the employer sought reversal of the award for future lost earnings arguing that video taken of the seaman after the accident showed him actively engaged in crabbing work thus proving he was not permanently disabled from offshore oilfield work.  The appellate court, again rejected the employer’s argument finding the testimony of the seaman’s treating physicians stating that the activities shown on the video were consistent with his conditions but that he was more likely than not permanently disable from oilfield work.