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Court Orders Towboat Company to Produce Surveillance Video Before Crewman’s Deposition

In Meyer v. Turn Services, L.L.C., 2016 WL 6610931 (E.D. La.  Nov. 9, 2016), a federal magistrate judge granted the plaintiff towboat crewman’s motion to compel the defendant towboat company to produce surveillance video it had shot of the crewman.  The Court also denied the company’s motion for a protective order to allow it to withhold the video until after its lawyer had taken the crewman’s deposition.  Magistrate Judge Wilkinson wrote:

“Defendant has failed to make a particular and specific demonstration of fact, that withholding [its] surveillance evidence will either encourage a dishonest plaintiff to testify honestly or enable them to catch plaintiff in a lie….To conclude that a witness would lie or would testify truthfully only because of the threat that a surveillance tape might exist is simply stereotyping, an exercise in speculation….[Defendant’s argument is] a faulty one, because it flies directly in the face of the very purpose of discovery. The federal rules promote broad discovery so that all relevant evidence is disclosed as early as possible,…a fair contest, where each party can knowledgeably evaluate the strength of its evidence and chances of ultimate success.”


“To permit plaintiff’s deposition to go forward before production of the surveillance evidence that all parties know exists undermines the search for truth, inhibits full trial preparation and settlement evaluation and invites an evidentiary mess at trial. I have reviewed numerous surveillance films and photographs in personal injury cases during my 21 years as a magistrate judge, both during and before trial. They depict what they depict, but seldom provide a full evidentiary picture. Invariably, the secretly recorded plaintiff has some explanation for the conduct being photographed, some testimony about the absolute necessity of his or her engaging in the photographed activity or some complaint that the photography does not also show the pain, discomfort, disability or medical treatment experienced in the aftermath of the surreptitiously recorded activity. The very purpose of discovery is to get all such facts and explanations on the table and out in the open, so that the case may be fully and accurately evaluated and adjudicated.”


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Court Finds Harbor Towboat Deckhand Work May Well be a Two-Man Job

In Keeney v. Ingram Barge Company, 2016 WL 1660398 (M.D. Tenn. Apr. 27, 2016), a federal district judge in Nashville denied Ingram Barge Company’s motion to dismiss the Jones Act negligence and general maritime law unseaworthiness claims in the lawsuit brought by Chase Keeney, an experienced deckhand aboard its harbor towboat, the M/V WILLARD HAMMOND.  Keeney claimed he had seriously injured his back, and had to undergo back surgery, because he was forced to work alone while building tow, specifically carrying ratchets and jerking wires.

Keeney worked the 12-hour day shift on Ingram’s harbor boat.  He conceded there was nothing wrong with the barge on which he was working, the towboat itself, or any of the wires or ratchets with which he was required to work.  Rather, Keeney claimed Ingram was at fault because he was forced to perform the heavy manual labor of a deckhand unassisted, because the other deckhand on his watch often would not help him, the company knew this, but did nothing about it.

A 35-foot barge wire similar to what Ingram deckhand Chase Keeney was required to carry and "jerk" singlehandedly.

A 35-foot, 100-120 pound, barge wire similar to what deckhand Chase Keeney was required to carry and “jerk” single-handedly.

Keeney’s claims were supported by an expert, Donald J. Green, who opined “the cause of this accident was negligence on the part of the defendants, Ingram Barge Company, for failure to provide Mr. Chase Keeney a safe workplace free from hazards. Reportedly, Mr. Keeney was required to perform repetitive heavy lifting and jerking ratchets to take out slack in ‘laying a wire’ without assistance. These are functions that are typically performed by two persons working together when making tow or securing barges in a tow. Mr. Keeney repeatedly handled heavy rigging wires and ratchets without sufficient assistance. Had another deckhand been available to help Mr. Keeney it is likely that he, Mr. Keeney, would not have had to repetitively strain laying wires making up tows, and it is more likely than not that this incident could have been avoided.”  Green added, “Ingram Barge Company failed to provide proper supervision or instruction to Mr. Keeney regarding safe procedures for transferring rigging wires from barges to tow boats and other barges” and “[r]equiring or allowing Mr. Keeney to work alone deploying or laying wires without assistance more than likely caused his injuries.”

Keeney testified at his deposition that “I was doing the job of two men by myself a lot of the times where it takes two people to pull up a wire and strap it in, I was doing it all by myself.”

The Court found that while the wire and ratchet work Keeney was performing can be done by one man, “it does appear that, if not mandated, it was at least preferable to have two men laying wire.” The Court also found it significant that Keeney had testified at deposition that before his accident he had reported to the captain of his towboat the fact his fellow deckhand, whom Ingram ultimately terminated due to his work habits, was routinely not helping him.


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Texas Court Upholds $8.5 Million Verdict for Injured Offshore Rig Mechanic, Holds Trial Judge Was Correct to Keep Out of Trial Unfair Surveillance Video

In Diamond Offshore Servs. Ltd. v. Williams, 2015 WL 4480577 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st. Dist.] July 21, 2015), Willie David Williams sued Diamond Offshore for negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness under the general maritime law after he seriously injured his back repairing equipment aboard an offshore oil rig owned and operated by Diamond Offshore.  The trial judge entered judgment on the jury’s verdict, after credits and offsets had been applied, delivering to Williams approximately $8.5 million in compensatory damages and $235,381 in pre- and post-judgment interest.  Diamond Offshore appealed the trial court’s judgment, claiming the trial judge made numerous legal errors, including preventing Diamond Offshore from showing the jury surveillance video its investigator had taken of Williams working outside.

Diamond Offshore's semi-submersible rig, the OCEAN LEXINGTON, upon which Willie David Williams was injured.

Diamond Offshore’s semi-submersible rig, the OCEAN LEXINGTON, upon which Willie David Williams was injured.

The surveillance video was eighty-minutes long and showed Williams performing various outdoor tasks, such as using an excavator to haul debris and working on a vehicle, over the course of three days, years after the accident and after Williams’ back surgeries.  The trial judge ruled the video could not be used as substantive evidence, but only for impeachment purposes, in other words, to try to show Williams was lying if he denied doing any of the things the video showed him doing.  Williams’ lawyers argued the video should be excluded from the trial under evidence rule 403 because the prejudicial effect of what they termed the “heavily edited” video substantially outweighed any probative value.

The appeals court found significant the fact the “video only reflects Williams’s outside activities and does not reflect what he did when he was not outside or whether he was in pain as a result of his activities.”  Also, in his trial testimony, Williams admitted he could perform the activities depicted in the surveillance video, although he added he could only engage in these activities “for short periods of time before he felt pain and that he would be in pain later after engaging in these activities.”

In affirming the trial judge’s decision to not allow the jury to see the surveillance video, the appeals court discussed how a “trial court’s evidentiary rulings are committed to the court’s ‘sound discretion,’ and we must uphold the court’s ruling if there is any basis for doing so.”  While in the trial transcript, the trial judge did not articulate a reason for its rulings, instead merely saying during a pre-trial hearing that Diamond Offshore could “keep [the surveillance video] in your reserve bank for impeachment” and that, if Williams “opens the door, then we’ll take a look at it.”  Similarly, when Diamond Offshore offered the surveillance video after one of Williams’ medical experts testified, the court stated, “Ruling stands the same,” and when Diamond Offshore offered the video after cross-examination of Williams, the trial court stated, “No, not admitting,” without providing a reason.

The appellate court found that “[n]o Texas case squarely addresses the issue present here—the admissibility of post-accident surveillance videotapes as either substantive or impeachment evidence—and cases from other jurisdictions have emphasized the trial court’s discretion in ruling on the admissibility of such evidence, upholding trial courts’ rulings admitting post-accident surveillance videos and upholding rulings excluding this evidence.  In the absence of authority binding on this Court, we cannot conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding the post-accident surveillance video offered by Diamond Offshore. The trial court could have reasonably determined that the proffered video, which contained clips from three different days of surveillance edited together into one continuous hour-long video and depicted Williams performing activities that he admitted that he could do, albeit with pain later, created an impression that Williams could engage in physical activity for long periods of time without needing rest and without apparent pain and thus that the prejudicial effect of the video outweighed the video’s probative value. …  We therefore hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the surveillance video proffered by Diamond Offshore.”


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Towboat Company’s Pre-Trial Attack on Plaintiff Deckhand’s Liability Expert Fails

In Paster v. Ingram Barge Company, 2015 WL 3680700 (E.D. La. June 12, 2015), deckhand Tommy Paster sued Ingram, his employer and the owner/operator of the towboat, the M/V O.A. FRANKS, alleging he seriously injured his back while standing on the edge of a barge and using a three to four-foot pole with a hook attached to it to grab equipment from the deck of the towboat located several feet below.  After hooking the equipment, Paster was able to pull it up to the barge, unassisted.  And while he was able to work the rest of the day, Paster claims the next day he awoke with pain radiating from his back down his leg — classic signs of a vertebral disc injury.  When he was lifting the equipment the day before, Paster claims he felt a “twinge” in his back.  Paster’s attorney made claims against Ingram in a federal court lawsuit under the Jones Act, for negligence, and under the general maritime law, for unseaworthiness.

Paster’s lawyer hired a liability expert, Robert E. “Bob” Borison, to opine on the cause of Paster’s accident.  In his report, Borison attributed the accident to, among other things, Ingram’s failure to have conducted essentially a job hazard analysis of the lifting operation in question, and failure to have properly trained Paster on proper lifting techniques in these circumstances.  The Court (U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance) summarized Borison’s three principal opinions as follows:

“Taken together, Borison’s expert testimony seeks to establish that (1) plaintiff’s work assignment required him to assume an unsafe lifting position, thereby causing his injury, (2) a reasonably competent safety professional would have assigned more manpower or mechanical power to assist plaintiff with the lift, and (3) defendant failed to adequately train plaintiff on proper lifting techniques under the circumstances.”

Ingram filed a pre-trial motion to strike Borison as an expert, to keep the jury from hearing his testimony.  Ingram argued Borison’s opinions were based on insufficient facts, misleading, and would not be helpful to the jury.  Ingram did not attack Borison’s qualifications, just his opinions.

In addressing Ingram’s motion, Judge Vance first ruled that “Borison’s proposed testimony is not within the scope of a layman’s common experience.  Contrary to the defendant’s assertions, Borison’s testimony is not simply that ‘someone should not lift something that is too big or too awkward for them to handle.’  Instead, Borison evaluates the specific posture plaintiff allegedly assumed, and opines that defendant failed to provide the necessary manpower or mechanical assistance to allow plaintiff to make the lift safely.  Borison is undoubtedly more familiar with the tools plaintiff was using, the equipment plaintiff was lifting, and the safety risks associated with working on barges than the average layperson.  Moreover, as an instructor ‘in the proper method of manual material handling,’ Borison is qualified to opine about the appropriate or customary level of training in the maritime industry.”  So, the Court found that, “Borison’s experience and specialized knowledge regarding maritime safety and industry custom will assist the trier of fact in determining whether [Ingram’s] conduct fell beneath the applicable standard of care in this case.”

Judge Vance was also unpersuaded by Ingram’s argument that Borison’s opinions were misleading or factually deficient.  As to Ingram’s criticism of Borison’s report insofar as it, in Ingram’s counsel’s words, “creates negligent-sounding section titles that imply Ingram did something wrong, and then declines to identify how Ingram actually merited his condemnation or discusses something entirely different …,” the Court found Borison’s report’s section titles were not evidence and the defendant’s argument “exalts form over substance and erroneously focuses on Borison’s section headings and typeface rather than on the content of Borison’s report.”  Judge Vance noted that Borison had written in his report that Ingram had caused plaintiff to assume an unsafe lifting position, failed to allocate sufficient resources to allow plaintiff to make the lift safely, and failed to adequately train plaintiff.”

Finally, in ruling that Borison would be permitted to testify before the jury as to each of the opinions appearing in his report, Judge Vance wrote:

“Although the Court agrees that Borison’s report is not the model of clarity, defendant’s cavils about Borison’s headings do not render Borison’s underlying opinions inadmissible.  Moreover, Borison states that he bases his opinions on an interview with plaintiff, defendant’s records, and thirty years of experience in the industry.  To the extent defendant disputes the underlying facts or disagrees with Borison’s interpretation of those facts, defendant may cross-examine Borison at trial.”


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Survivors of Tug Captain Found Dead and Floating Alongside Allowed to Proceed With Claims Against Tug Owner

In In re Complaint of McAllister Towing & Transp. Co., Inc., 2015 WL 1515369 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2015), the tug owner, McAllister, filed suit under the Vessel Owners’ Limitation of Liability Act and later sought to dismiss on motion for summary judgment the claims brought by the survivors of the captain of its tug, the A.J. McALLISTER.  The tug’s captain, Edward Cornelius, was last seen alive aboard the tug at 0922.  Just seven minutes later, dock surveillance video showed him floating lifeless in the water.

McAllister, the tug owner, argued Captain Cornelius likely had a heart attack and tumbled into the water afterwards, and thus that his death could not be its fault.  Cornelius’ survivors, however, argued the captain may have slipped while climbing from the tug to the pier, an accident they argued could have been avoided had the tug owner provided a proper gangway.

More facts: On the morning of the accident, Captain Cornelius told another crewmember he was going to have coffee, read a paper, then go ashore to his truck to get some paint.  The evidence supported that the captain, in fact, did have coffee and read the paper on the tug.  Then he was captured on video surveillance footage at 0922 facing in the direction of the port side of the tug, which side was tied to the pier, appearing as though he were going to debark.  At 0923, he was not in view of the pier surveillance camera on the boat or at the pier.  The captain was not seen again until 0929, when pier surveillance video showed his lifeless body floating in the water, two feet from the tug.

The Court found that, like the majority of McAllister’s tugs, the A.J. McALLISTER did not have a gangway, or any means of exiting the boat that was enclosed on both sides, to get to the pier. So, to exit the boat, the Court noted, a crewmember would have to walk up a three-step stool on the tug, then step onto the cap rail — a raised metal surface on the boat that was sloped downward from bow to stern and had a “little bubble” on part of its surface, then possibly step onto the pier fendering system, to which the tug was not tied tightly, then step onto the concrete of the pier.

The Court described how the fendering system at the New Bedford, Massachusetts, pier where the tug was moored had boards that suffered from heavy wear and tear and draped over them were the lines used to moor the tug.  There was also a strong wind between 25 and 30 miles per hour the morning of the captain’s death.  Also, there were no handrails for support during this exiting process.  Captain Cornelius was not intoxicated or under the influence of drugs at the time of the accident, and he was known to be a safe and outstanding captain.

The Court concluded this factual record presented sufficient issues to require the case to be tried and denied the tug owner’s motion for summary judgment as to both the survivors’ Jones Act negligence and general maritime law unseaworthiness claims.


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