Understanding Per Se Negligence and Inspected Vessels
In May 2015, Justin Shawler allegedly fell while onboard a boat near Venice, Louisiana, tumbling from the bridge deck to the lower cockpit deck. He sustained multiple injuries.
Shawler took the offshore fishing trip with a group of business partners. He claims that everyone onboard the vessel, including crew members, was drinking alcohol. Shawler filed a lawsuit against the boat owner for negligence and negligence per se. He argued that U.S. Coast Guard safety regulations prohibit crewmembers from consuming alcohol on “inspected vessels” and that it was per se negligent for the Big Valley boat crew members to be drinking.
What is Per Se Negligence?
Negligence happens when someone fails to use reasonable care in doing something and ends up injuring another person. Car accidents are a perfect example. It is negligent when a driver goes faster than the posted speed limit and causes an accident, or blows through a red light and collides with another vehicle, or changes lanes without checking the blind spot and sideswipes the car in the next lane.
Negligence is not based on a particular statute but instead arises from common law (judicial precedent and custom). Negligence per se, however, is based on a statute. It is a doctrine that says you are automatically considered negligent if you violate a particular law. For example, Shawler argued that violating the Coast Guard’s prohibition against drinking on an inspected vessel was per se negligent.
What is an “Inspected Vessel”?
Different laws apply to “inspected” and “uninspected vessels.” For example, an inspected vessel may be subject to regulations under the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act or Coast Guard regulations.
An “inspected vessel” means a vessel that is inspected by the Coast Guard. This classification includes passenger, cargo, and fuel ships. It does not include recreational vessels, which are used primarily for pleasure and leisure.
The dispute in Shawler’s case was whether the Big Valley boat is a small passenger vessel subject to Coast Guard regulations. This is a technical dispute, but many legal issues are. A “small passenger vessel” means a vessel carrying more than six passengers and at least one passenger for hire. Basically, a “passenger for hire” means someone who is paid to be on the vessel. Shawler argued that Big Valley passengers qualified as passengers for hire, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.
The Coast Guard regulations prohibiting crew members from consuming alcohol did not apply to the Big Valley passengers. Shawler could not prove negligence per se.
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Not every offshore injury case is technical and complex. But even when a case seems straightforward, it is always advisable to seek legal counsel.
Contact The Patrick Yancey Law Firm today for a free consultation if you are injured while onboard an offshore vessel. Our experienced attorneys will examine the facts of your case and determine whether you have a viable personal injury claim. Different laws apply based on the circumstances, which is why you need an attorney to help formulate an effective legal strategy on your behalf.
What Law Applies to My Offshore Injury Claims?
Sometimes the success of a maritime injury lawsuit depends on what body of law applies and which court has jurisdiction. Here are a few things to consider:
- Does Louisiana law or federal law apply?
- Which federal law governs your claims? The Jones Act? The Longshore Act? General maritime law?
- In what court can you — and should you — file your lawsuit? State court or federal court?
Louisiana Law vs. Federal Law
It is not always easy figuring out whether Louisiana law or federal law governs your claims. If you are in a run-of-the-mill car accident, state law clearly applies, but if you are injured offshore, then federal law may apply. An experienced attorney can help determine what law applies to your case.
Applying federal maritime law to offshore injury cases allows for uniform resolution of maritime cases, but remember that different federal laws apply depending on the situation.
Which Federal Law Applies to My Case?
Several federal laws apply to injured offshore workers, depending on the situation. For example, the Jones Act requires employers to provide seamen with a reasonably safe work environment. The employer can be held responsible for injuries caused by unsafe conditions on a vessel. The key questions are whether the worker is a “seaman” and whether the vessel is “in navigation.” Workers who work on stationary drilling facilities are not eligible for Jones Act protections.
Another federal law that might apply is the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. The Longshore Act provides compensation to injured maritime workers who are not covered under the Jones Act. Coverage extends to any longshoreman, or other person engaged in longshoring operations. The Longshore Act also covers harbor workers, including shipbuilders, ship repairmen and ship-breakers.
If no specific federal law applies, then general maritime law likely governs. General maritime law covers all activities that take place on navigational ships, including trade and shipping. It is also possible that multiple laws apply to your case or that your claims do not fit squarely into one legal box. An experienced attorney can determine how to best proceed.
Should I File My Lawsuit in State Court or Federal Court?
Deciding where to file your lawsuit is an important step in the litigation process. It seems obvious: File state law claims in state court and federal law claims in federal court. Right?
Not always. State courts can resolve federal issues in certain cases, while federal courts can resolve state issues. It all depends on the facts of your case, where the parties are from, and what laws are at issue. If you file in the wrong court, your case could be removed to federal court or remanded to state court.
The complexities of where to file a lawsuit are another reason you need an experienced attorney.
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Contact Patrick Yancey Law Firm today for a free consultation if you are injured in a maritime-related incident. Our experienced attorneys will help determine what law applies to your claims and where to file your lawsuit.
Pending U.S. Supreme Court Case Will Affect Maritime Law Personal Injury Cases
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a case called Air and Liquid Systems Corporation v. Devries, which involves products liability and maritime law. Here are a few frequently asked questions about this lawsuit and why it is relevant to your life.
Q: First of all, what is oral argument?
A: Oral argument is the justices’ opportunity to ask questions about the case. Typically, each side gets an allotted time to present their argument and answer the justices’ questions. Air and Liquid Systems Corporation will be argued on October 10.
Q: What is this case about?
A: Two Navy widows filed a products liability lawsuit after their husbands died from cancer. The widows claimed that their husbands were exposed to asbestos while working on Navy ships and in a naval shipyard, and that is why they developed cancer. They filed the lawsuit against multiple defendants, including manufacturers that produced and shipped “bare metal” parts. These parts did not contain asbestos when they left the manufacturers’ hands.
Q: What is the legal issue here?
A: A federal appeals court found the manufacturers liable for the asbestos-related injuries because it was reasonably foreseeable that the insulation would be added to the bare metal parts. Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether maritime law holds manufacturers responsible when they do not manufacture, sell, or distribute the actual products that caused the injuries.
Q: What will the Supreme Court decide?
A: It is no use prognosticating. What is interesting here is that another federal appeals court reached the opposite conclusion, ruling that defendants are not liable under maritime law when third-party materials are added to their products and those materials cause injuries. The two conflicting decisions are what is called a circuit split. The Supreme Court frequently hears cases in which it has to resolve conflicting interpretations of federal law.
Q: How could a court hold a manufacturer responsible for a product it did not produce?
A: That is a complicated question. The short answer is that the law often holds manufacturers and other entities responsible for reasonably foreseeable results. The Supreme Court could say that the bare metal manufacturers knew or should have known that insulation would be added to their products, and that they still have a duty to ensure their products’ safety.
Q: Why is this case important?
A: The Supreme Court’s decision is important because it could expand tort liability in other bare metal cases. In other words, personal injury and wrongful death plaintiffs might have more options when seeking damages. The more options you have, the more likely it is for you to be made whole. Keep in mind that the court’s decision could affect both maritime and non-maritime cases.
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Contact Patrick Yancey Law Firm today for a free consultation if you are injured on an offshore vessel. Our experienced attorneys will determine what law applies to your case and help recover the compensation that you deserve. We keep up on the latest developments in federal maritime law and are prepared to resolve your case.