An injured tug boat captain has been awarded over 3 Million dollars due to a slip and fall accident. In August of 2015, the plaintiff was a tug boat captain. His job duties included steering the vessel and supervising the crew. On the morning of the accident, the tug was pushing two loaded chemical barges towards a fleeting area. At approximately 5:00 a.m. the captain was awakened by the sound of the tug’s engines backing down. He left his bunk in his athletic shoes and went to the helm to assist the pilot who was struggling to align the barges in the fleeting area. He took over the controls and radioed for another tug in the fleet to assist. With help from the assisted tug, the plaintiff was able to straighten the barges. As the captain was about to return to his cabin to prepare for his upcoming shift, a deckhand reported that diesel or some other fluid was spraying from a generator in the engine room. The captain determined that the safest approach to handle the situation was to simply switch generators rather than using the emergency kill switch as that would cause the entire tug to lose power. In order to switch generators, the captain was required to manually shut off the leaking generator which was accessible only from the engine room floor. The captain proceeded down the ladder followed by the deckhand. Upon reaching the engine room deck both the captain and deckhand slipped and fell on accumulated diesel sprayed from the generator. From this fall, the captain sustained a severe hip injury including a fracture to the right femoral head. The injured captain required emergency surgery where four screws were placed in his hip to stabilize and reduce the femoral fracture. The captain also injured his lower back.
Unseaworthiness of the Tug
It was later learned that the leak was caused by a faulty fuel pressure gauge. The stem which connected the gauge’s valve to the fuel filter housing had sheered in half which caused diesel to spray from the hole. From this, the Court found that the tug was not reasonably fit for its intended purpose and was therefore unseaworthy. The tug company argued that the captain was comparably negligent as he entered the engine room in his athletic shoes and not the steel-toed boots required by the company’s safety policy. The Court rejected this argument finding that the captain’s wearing of athletic shoes was not the legal cause of the accident as the deckhand, who was wearing the required steel-toed boots per the company’s safety policy, also slipped on the leaked diesel. The tug company next argued that the captain was negligent for his decision to enter the engine room to manually switch the generators as opposed to shutting down power to the tug via the kill switch. This argument was also rejected. The Court, applying maritime law precedent, found that in emergency situations a seaman’s actions cannot be judged as they would be in ordinary circumstances. The Court then reasoned that the captain had to choose between shutting off all power to the tug, which was pushing two loaded chemical barges towards the fleeting area, or entering the engine room to see if he could stop the leak by switching generators. Under these circumstances, the Court determined that the captain acted reasonably and was not negligent by entering the engine room.