Admiralty Team Obtains Defense Verdict in Jones Act Trial in St. Mary Parish

Sean McLaughlin and Michael McGlone recently represented the defendant, Oceaneering, the plaintiff’s employer and the time charterer of the M/V OLYMPIC INTERVENTION IV, in Roland Gunner v. Oceaneering International, Inc.  The plaintiff sought to recover damages in excess of $1,250,000 from Oceaneering arising out of an injury he sustained while working as a Jones Act seaman aboard the M/V OLYMPIC INTERVENTION IV.  Trial was conducted on November 28-30, 2011.

On March 29, 2009, the plaintiff sustained a severe injury when a hatch fell on his hand.  The hatch was equipped with a fully functional latch.  The plaintiff claimed that the hatch and/or latch were defectively designed since the hatch could be open without the latch being engaged.  The plaintiff contended that Oceaneering “knew or should have known” of this alleged defect.  The plaintiff also claimed that Oceaneering was liable for the vessel’s alleged unseaworthiness.

The plaintiff also sought unspecified punitive damages for Oceaneering’s refusal to authorize a surgical procedure recommended by the plaintiff’s treating physician.  Oceaneering refused to authorize the procedure based on the opinions of two independent physicians.  Although the plaintiff’s hand fully healed, the plaintiff’s treating physician testified that he was permanently prevented from returning to offshore work.

The defense contended that the plaintiff was currently employed and possessed the capacity to earn wages similar to his pre-injury wages.  Plaintiff had worked in excess of 50 hours in a single week for his current employer.  The plaintiff countered this contention by claiming that the 50 hour work week was “abnormal” and that his “average” work week was 20 hours.

Following trial, the Court found that the plaintiff had failed to meet its burden of proving that Oceaneering committed any negligence “however slight.”  In reaching this ruling, the Court noted that Oceaneering was not the owner or operator of the OLYMPIC INTERVENTION IV, and therefore not liable for any potential unseaworthiness of the vessel.  The Court then found that the plaintiff failed to establish that Oceaneering played any role in operating the hatch prior to the plaintiff’s accident.  Accordingly, the Court ruled that Oceaneering was not liable to the plaintiff for Jones Act negligence. 

The Court further ruled that Oceaneering had satisfied its obligation to provide maintenance and cure, and dismissed the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.  The Court issued alternative findings.  The Court found that the plaintiff’s economic damages ceased to accrue once the plaintiff was declared to have reached maximum medical improvement.  In so ruling, the Court found that the plaintiff possessed the capacity to earn wages similar to that earned prior to his injury.  The Court stated that if Plaintiff desired to earn more money, the plaintiff should seek different employment where additional hours were available.

This case is important in several respects.  It is axiomatic that the plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the defendant – not someone else – was negligent.  Here, the evidence established that the hatch was open.  However, there was no evidence that Oceaneering opened it – and Oceaneering was therefore found to be free from fault.

Second, in its alternative ruling, the Court found that the plaintiff’s “capacity” to work was the proper barometer for determining whether he had sustained any future economic loss.  In so ruling, the Court rejected the idea of holding the defendant liable for economic conditions outside of its control.