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Lebrun v. Baker Hughes Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

November 14, 2017

Baker Hughes Inc. et al



         Before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant, Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling, Inc. (“Transocean”) [Rec. Doc. 83] and Transocean's Supplemental Memorandum in Support, [Rec. Doc. 127], Plaintiff, Jonathan Lebrun's, Memorandum in Opposition [Rec. Doc. 92] and Plaintiff's Supplemental Memorandum in Opposition [Rec. Doc. 126]. For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be granted.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff, Jonathan Lebrun, worked for Baker Hughes Oilfield Operations, Inc. (“BHOOI”) from December 2005 until April 24, 2015. According to Karen Johnson, a Risk Management Analyst II for Transocean, Plaintiff was assigned to work aboard Transocean's drillship, DEEPWATER CHAMPION, for eighty-one (81) days in 2013 through 2014. R. 83-7, Decl. Of Johnson. His last hitch was from March 13, 2015 until April 24, 2015. Johnson further states that Plaintiff worked a total of 104 days on the DEEPWATER CHAMPION. Id.

         Plaintiff alleges that while he was aboard the DEEPWATER CHAMPION he collected geological samples from the drilling mud returns inside an enclosed “shaker shack” located above the main deck.[1] He further alleges that, as part of his duties as a mud sampler, he had to enter and exit the shaker shack via the room's “vacuum sealed, 1/4 inch steel blast-proof shaker house door” multiple times per day. Plaintiff contends he injured his lower back by having to repeatedly pry open the shaker house door using his foot against the wall during his 12-hour shifts.[2]

         Plaintiff was terminated by Baker Hughes on April 24, 2015, due to a company-wide Reduction in Force caused by the downturn in the oilfield in 2014-2015. R. 83-8, Decl of Guidry. Plaintiff filed this action alleging claims under the Jones Act. R. 1. On June 14, 2016, this Court found that Plaintiff was not a Jones Act seaman. R. 44. In his Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleged a claim for unseaworthiness as a Sieracki seaman as well as for negligence and gross negligence under the general maritime law; alternatively, Plaintiff alleged his action arises under the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (“LHWCA”) and the general maritime law. R. 56. On August 18, 2017, the Court denied Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment for Sieracki Seaman status. R. 109. Thus, as a Longshoreman, Plaintiff retained a negligence claim against Transocean, the operator of the DEEPWATER CHAMPION.

         In its Motion for Summary Judgment, Transocean seeks dismissal of Plaintiff's negligence action with prejudice, at plaintiff's costs. Transocean contends that it had no “turnover duty” to Plaintiff related to the condition of the shaker shack door that Plaintiff alleged caused his back injury because the door was an “open and obvious” condition which is not encompassed in the “turnover duty.” Plaintiff filed an Opposition Memorandum reiterating that his back injury was caused by Transocean's negligence based on the vacuum seal on the shaker shack door.

         On October 18, 2017, the Court conducted a hearing with oral argument on the Motion.[3] During the hearing, for the first time, counsel for Plaintiff argued there was no issue of “turnover duty' in this case because Plaintiff had no control over any aspect of the DEEPWATER CHAMPION; he worked in the shaker shack with Transocean shaker hands; and, Transocean never gave up any responsibility over the shaker shack. Unofficial Hearing Transcript, 10/18/2017. Rather, Plaintiff argued that the real issue in this case is whether or not Transocean breached the “active control” duty by maintaining control over the venting system and thereby control of the vacuum door through which Plaintiff had to enter and exit the shaker shack. Id. Plaintiff conceded that there was no question that the door was an open and obvious condition, but argued, presumably in the alternative, that the “no alternative” exception to the open and obvious condition excluded any such issue. Id. Following conclusion of the arguments, the Court ordered the parties to separately file Supplemental Memoranda related to Plaintiff's argument as to the “no alternative” exception and Transocean's “active control” duty. The parties complied with the Court's order. R. 126, 127.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Under Rule 56(c), the moving party bears the initial burden of “informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); see Stahl v. Novartis Pharms. Corp., 283 F.3d 254, 263 (5th Cir.2002). The party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact but need not negate the elements of the nonmovant's case. Exxon Corp. v. Oxxford Clothes XX, Inc., 109 F.3d 1070, 1074 (5thCir.1997). When the moving party, has met its Rule 56(c) burden, the nonmoving party, cannot survive a summary judgment motion by resting on the mere allegations of its pleadings. “[T]he nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate the manner in which that evidence supports that party's claim.” Johnson v. Deep E. Tex. Reg'l Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, 379 F.3d 293, 301 (5th Cir.2004).

         III. Legal Analysis

         Section 905(b) of the LHWCA grants covered maritime workers an exclusive remedy against a “vessel” for injuries caused by the vessel's negligence. See 33 U.S.C. § 905(b). The Act defines “vessel” broadly to include both the physical vessel on which the worker was injured and “said vessel's owner, owner pro hac vice, agent, operator, charter or bare boat charterer, master, officer, or crew member.” 33 U.S.C. § 902(21). As the operator of the DEEPWATER CHAMPION, Transocean moves the Court to find that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact that Transocean's negligence did not substantially cause and/or contribute to Plaintiff's lumbar injuries and resulting surgery.

         In Scindia Steam Navigation Co. v. De Los Santos, 451 U.S. 156 (1981), the U.S. Supreme Court articulated the scope of a vessel's duties to longshoremen and harbor workers under § 905(b). The Scindia Court explained that a stevedore was required to provide “a reasonably safe” place to work and to take such safeguards with respect to equipment and working conditions as necessary to avoid injury to longshoremen, but the ship owes no such duty to them, and a vessel may rightfully expect that a stevedore would perform his task properly without supervision by the ship. Id. at 170. Transocean also relies on Helaire v. Mobil Oil Co., 709 F.2d 1031, 1036 (5th Cir.1983), in which the Fifth Circuit stated that “[t]he most basic principle which emerges from Scindia is that the primary responsibility for the safety of the longshoremen rests upon the stevedore.” Therefore, Transocean argues that the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit have consistently recognized that the responsibility for the safety of a maritime worker lies with the employer, such as Baker Hughes, and not the vessel operator, in this case Transocean.

         Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has outlined three general duties that vessel owners/operators owe to covered workers under section 905(b):

The first, which courts have come to call the “turnover duty, ” relates to the condition of the ship upon the commencement of stevedoring operations. The second duty, applicable once stevedoring operations have begun, provides that a shipowner must exercise reasonable care to prevent injuries to longshoremen in areas that remain under the “active control of the vessel.” The third duty, called the “duty to intervene, ” concerns the ...

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