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Schouest v. Marsh Buggies, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

January 29, 2015

SHAWN SCHOUEST,
v.
MARSH BUGGIES, INC., ET AL., Section:

ORDER AND REASONS

MARY ANNVIAL LEMMON, District Judge.

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Marsh Buggies, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #24) is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

This matter is before the court on a motion for summary judgment filed by defendant, Marsh Buggies, Inc.[1] Marsh Buggies argues that plaintiff's claims against it should be dismissed because the marsh excavators on which plaintiff worked were not a vessels, and plaintiff was not a Jones Act seaman.

Plaintiff, Shawn Schouest, filed this action against Marsh Buggies in the Twenty-Fifth Judicial District Court, Parish of Plaquemines, State of Louisiana alleging claims under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. § 905(b), for injuries he allegedly sustained while working for Marsh Buggies. Schouest alleges that on October 23, 2012, he was employed by Marsh Buggies as a driver of their equipment, and that he was injured while "performing maintenance on a Marsh Buggy when the chain securing the Marsh Buggy failed and struck him on the wrist causing him to sustain painful and serious injuries."

Marsh Buggies removed the action to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana alleging federal question subject matter jurisdiction. Thereafter, Schouest filed an amended complaint seeking damages under the Jones Act and general maritime law, and he dismissed his claims brought under 33 U.S.C. § 905(b). Marsh Buggies filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the marsh excavators on which Schouest worked were not vessels, and that Schouest was not a seaman.

ANALYSIS

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that the "court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Granting a motion for summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, and affidavits filed in support of the motion demonstrate that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2509-10 (1986). The court must find "[a] factual dispute... [to be] 'genuine' if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party... [and a] fact... [to be] material' if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing substantive law." Beck v. Somerset Techs., Inc., 882 F.2d 993, 996 (5th Cir. 1989) (citing Anderson, 106 S.Ct. at 2510).

If the moving party meets the initial burden of establishing that there is no genuine issue, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce evidence of the existence of a genuine issue for trial. Celeotex Corp. v. Catrett, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552 (1986). The non-movant cannot satisfy the summary judgment burden with conclusory allegations, unsubstantiated assertions, or only a scintilla of evidence. Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). If the opposing party bears the burden of proof at trial, the moving party does not have to submit evidentiary documents to properly support its motion, but need only point out the absence of evidence supporting the essential elements of the opposing party's case. Saunders v. Michelin Tire Corp., 942 F.2d 299, 301 (5th Cir. 1991).

B. Schouest's Claims

Schouest brings claims against Marsh Buggies under the Jones Act and the general maritime law doctrine of unseaworthiness. The Jones Act provides a cause of action for a "seaman" who is injured in the course of his employment. 46 U.S.C. § 30104. The test for determining whether an employee is a seaman under the Jones Act is twofold: (1) the employee's duties must "contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission"; and, (2) the employee "must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of such vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature." Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 115 S.Ct. 2172, 2189-90 (1995). "The relevant question is whether in the course of his current job, he substantially contributes to the vessels' functions and maintains a substantial connection with the fleet." Naquin v. Elevating Boats, L.L.C., 744 F.3d 927, 933 (5th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted).

"[L]iability based upon unseaworthiness is wholly distinct from liability" under the Jones Act. Usner v. Luckenback Overseas Corp., 91 S.Ct. 514, 517 (1971). To establish a claim for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law, a plaintiff must prove "that the owner has failed to provide a vessel, including her equipment and crew, which is reasonably fit and safe for the purpose for which it is used." Jackson v. OMI Corp., 245 F.3d 525, 527 (5th Cir. 2001). Thus, both of Schouest's claims against Marsh Buggies depend on whether the marsh excavators on which he worked are "vessels."

The definition of "vessel" includes "every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water." 1 U.S.C. § 3. "The determination of whether a given craft is a vessel is ordinarily resolved as a matter of law, " but "at the margin, fact issues may be present." Manuel v. P.A.W. Drilling & Well Serv., Inc., 135 F.3d 344, 347 (5th Cir. 1998) (citing Ducote v. V. Keeler & Co., Inc., 953 F.2d 1000, 1002 (5th Cir. 1992) ("marginal claims are properly left for jury determination"); ...


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