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Jury to Resolve Injured Fisherman Jones Act Negligence and Unseaworthiness Claims

Injured_Fisherman_ClaimA Federal court recently found determined that a jury is to resolve an injured fisherman Jones Act negligence and unseaworthiness claims .

Facts of the Case

This case involves a personal injury sustained by a professional fisherman aboard a vessel engaged in scalloping.  When fishing for scallops, the vessel the fishermen worked aboard drags along the sea floor two dredges, one on the starboard side and one on the port side.  Every hour, the dredges are winched up and their contents (which includes scallops, bycatch, rocks, and other debris) are dumped on the aft deck in what is known as “the pile.” The dredges are then lowered back to the seafloor, and the crew uses the next hour to pick the scallops out of the pile, deposit them in the shucking house, and return the rocks and bycatch to the sea.  Although the vessel has a non-skid surface on some of the deck, there is an area of the stern deck where the dredges and chain bags are regularly landed that does not. According to the defendants, that is due to the heavy abuse that part of the deck takes, which would cause the coating to wear off in a matter of days.

While working under these conditions, the fisherman slipped and fell on his way from the door of the shucking house to the pile, about three feet from the port rail, between amidships and the stern. He claimed that the deck where he slipped is bare steel. At the time of the accident, a fisheries observer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association was on deck as well as the vessel’s captain who was picking the pile approximately six to eight feet away from the accident.  The NOAA observer is the only witness to have seen any part of the fall.  He also saw a skate (a flat fish) on the deck near where the seaman fell.

The vessel landed its catch about a week after the fall. The injured fisherman went to an urgent-care clinic, which transferred him to a hospital, where he was admitted and observed for several days.  He was diagnosed as suffering a mild traumatic brain injury.  He contends that he continues to suffer from the consequences, and as of January 17, 2017, his doctor considered him to be totally disabled.

The Case

From this slip and fall incident the fishermen brought a negligence claim under the Jones Act and an unseaworthiness claim against his employer and vessel owner under the general maritime law.  Defendants contends that it is entitled to summary judgment on the Jones Act and unseaworthiness claims on the ground that it is undisputed that the fishermen slipped not on the deck but on a skate, and therefore he is unable to prove that the condition of the deck surface caused his injury.

The fishermen disputed that he slipped on the skate.  He further argues that regardless of whether his foot was on the deck or the skate, there is still a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the condition of the deck caused his injury, because there is evidence that the slipperiness of the deck caused the skate to slide on the deck.

The Legal Issue

In order to prove a Jones Act negligence claim, a seaman must establish duty, breach, causation, and injury.  To prove the unseaworthiness, the seaman must show that the shipowner breached its “absolute duty to provide to every member of his crew ‘a vessel and appurtenances reasonably fit for their intended use.'”  The employer and vessel owner filed a motion for summary judgments seeking to dispose of the case before trial.  In order to win summary judgment, they were required to show the absence of a dispute of material fact impacting the fisherman’s claims against them.  The employer and vessel owner argued that they is entitled to summary judgment because the fisherman cannot carry his burden to show that the lack of a non-skid surface on the deck caused his injury.  The summary motion focused heavily on the “undisputed fact” that the fisherman slipped on a skate and not the deck (which the fisherman disputes).  The Court disagreed with the employer and vessel owner and found that even if a jury were to find that fisherman slipped on a skate, there is record evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that his fall was caused by the condition of the deck.  Specifically, the fisherman’s liability expert witness opined that even if he had stepped on the skate, the skate would have slid across the surface of the deck and a non-skid coating on the deck would have secured the skate and prevented his fall.  The Court also found a genuine question of material fact as to what caused the fall. There is testimony from various people that the fisherman told them that he slipped on a skate and the fisherman himself appears to have no memory, although he testified at his deposition that he “probably” slipped on the deck.  In short, the Court found there is substantial evidence that fisherman either slipped on the deck or a skate, and the issue must be resolved by a jury.