US Case law: Knight v Kirby Offshore Marine, No. 19-30756 (5th Cir., December 17, 2020)

News & Insights 8 February 2021


Jones Act prudent mariner standard 

The plaintiff, Andrew Knight, was a seaman onboard the M/V SEA HAWK, a tugboat owned by Kirby Offshore Marine (“Kirby”) that was towing a barge from the State of Washington to Alaska. The...

Jones Act prudent mariner standard 

The plaintiff, Andrew Knight, was a seaman onboard the M/V SEA HAWK, a tugboat owned by Kirby Offshore Marine (“Kirby”) that was towing a barge from the State of Washington to Alaska. The plaintiff brought a Jones Act claim against his employer for an ankle injury sustained when he stepped on a chafed line that he placed near him, while he was installing a new one with a fellow crew member. As an offshore tankerman, the plaintiff’s duties principally included deck labour for the tug and barges.

The district court concluded that Kirby was negligent, based on an order by its vessel's captain to replace the chafed line in unfavourable weather. Furthermore, the plaintiff was found contributorily negligent by 50% for placing the removed chafed line near him and subsequently stepping on it while carrying out that order, reducing his damages award in proportion to his fault. The district court awarded, inter alia, $60,000 for Knight’s general damages for pain and suffering. 

The plaintiff appealed on two grounds.  First, that a Jones Act seaman could not be held contributorily negligent when carrying out an order, and second, that he was at fault for placing the line on the deck and stepping on it.

The plaintiff based the first ground on the decision in Williams v. Brasea, Inc., 497 F.2d 67 (5th Cir. 1974) in which the Fifth Circuit previously stated that “a seaman may not be contributorily negligent for carrying out orders that result in his own injury, even if he recognized possible danger.”  The appeal court rejected this argument and determined that the statement in Williams was dicta, which does not have binding authority. Further, the court made a distinction between specific and general orders for the purposes of the contributory negligence of the seaman. A seaman who is injured while following a specific order from his captain (i.e., an order that must be accomplished using a specific manner and method, leaving the seaman with no reasonable alternative to complete the assigned task) cannot be contributorily negligent. However, where the order is broad and general, as the order given to Knight was in this case, the seaman still has a duty to act with the same ordinary prudence with which he normally must conduct himself. Thus, as a matter of law, the district court was not precluded from reducing the plaintiff’s award by his proportion of fault.

On his second claimed error regarding contributory negligence, Knight successfully complained that the District Court improperly assigned him comparative fault for negligently placing the line on the deck. The appeal court held that the district court did not clearly err in finding that the plaintiff was negligent in stepping on the chafed line, but the district court did err in finding him negligent for failing to move it. In this case, Kirby did not present any evidence showing that the plaintiff placed the chafed line on the deck in an imprudent manner and the tugboat's captain, who gave plaintiff the order, watched the entire procedure, testifying that there were no irregularities in how the task was performed. Therefore, in the absence of any evidence, the district court's finding of fifty percent negligence based on plaintiff's placement of the chafed stern line was held to be erroneous.

The plaintiff’s other assignments of error were promptly dismissed due to a procedural misstep on his part. The court refused to consider whether the plaintiff’s co-worker bore any portion of comparative fault based on the plaintiff’s failure to raise them in the pre-trial stage.

Finally, the court upheld the general damages award and affirmed the district court’s award of $60,000. 

The judgment can be found here.

Full commentaries can be found in the below links.
Lexology website
Louisiana law blog
MBLB website

Category: Caselaw

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