Published: December 7, 2012
By: Frederick B. Goldsmith
In Laborde v. SGS North America, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 170544 (M.D. La. Nov. 29, 2012), Brent Laborde sued his employer, SGS, as a seaman under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C.A. § 30104, for personal injuries he sustained while moving a heavy coil of rope aboard the M/V Helen G, which was also owned, operated, and maintained by SGS. He claimed SGS was negligent and the M/V Helen G was unseaworthy. SGS filed a motion for partial summary judgment, asking the federal trial court to dismiss Laborde’s unseaworthiness claim. In his opinion denying SGS’s motion, Judge James J. Brady of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana reviewed the law on the vessel owner’s warranty of seaworthiness which it owes its crewmembers, and what can constitute an “unseaworthy” condition aboard a vessel.
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539, 550, (1960), the Baton Rouge-based court discussed how a shipowner’s warranty of seaworthiness encompasses a duty to “furnish a vessel and appurtenances reasonably fit for their intended use.” Other courts have explained this duty as requiring the vessel owner to “provide a vessel, including her equipment and crew, which is reasonably fit and safe for the purpose for which it is to be used.” Boudreaux v. United States, 280 F.3d 461, 468 (5th Cir. 2002). Unseaworthiness can also be “manifested by an unsafe method of work, such as the failure by a shipowner to provide adequate equipment for the performance of an assigned task.” Johnson v. Offshore Express, Inc., 845 F.2d 1347, 1354-1355 (5th Cir. 1988).
In Usner v. Luckenbach, 400 U.S. 494, 498 (1971), the Supreme Court held that “unseaworthiness is a condition, and how that condition came into being – whether by negligence or otherwise – is quite irrelevant to the owner’s liability for personal injuries resulting from it.”
To win an unseaworthiness claim, the seaman plaintiff must also establish causation, that is, prove that the “unseaworthy condition played a substantial part in bringing about or actually causing the injury and that the injury was either a direct result or a reasonably probable consequence of the unseaworthiness.” Johnson v. Offshore Express, Inc., 845 F.2d at 1354.
Under the general maritime law, there is a difference between “transitory unseaworthiness,” which subjects a vessel owner to liability, and “instant unseaworthiness,” caused by a single, unforeseeable act of operational negligence, which does not. A transitory unseaworthy condition, like a permanent defect, will render a ship unseaworthy.