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Young v. T.T. Barge Services Mile 237, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

December 5, 2017


         SECTION “R” (3)



         Before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment on the issue of whether plaintiff qualifies as a Jones Act seaman.[1] For the following reasons, the Court finds that plaintiff is not a seaman, denies plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment, and grants defendant's motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of an accident aboard a barge owned by Defendant T.T. Barge Services Mile 237, LLC.[2] Defendant operates a business that cleans barges owned by various other companies.[3] Defendant's customers dock their barges at a set of floating work barges owned by defendant.[4]Defendant's work barges are connected to shore through a permanently installed walkway, steel cables, electric lines, hoses, vapor lines, and steam lines.[5] Plaintiff Marcus Young was employed by defendant as a barge cleaner.[6] He stored equipment and performed other work on the work barges, but lived on land and commuted to work every day by car.[7]

         On June 15, 2016, plaintiff fell into an open hatch on one of defendant's work barges, the Gas Free Barge, and allegedly suffered injuries.[8] On January 9, 2017, plaintiff filed a seaman's complaint for damages against defendant.[9] Plaintiff now moves for partial summary judgment, and asks the Court to find that he is a seaman entitled to bring a negligence claim under the Jones Act and claims for unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure under general maritime law.[10] Defendant filed a cross-motion for summary judgment asserting that plaintiff is not a seaman.[11]


         Summary judgment is warranted when “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994). When assessing whether a dispute as to any material fact exists, the Court considers “all of the evidence in the record but refrain[s] from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Delta & Pine Land Co. v. Nationwide Agribusiness Ins. Co., 530 F.3d 395, 398-99 (5th Cir. 2008). All reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the nonmoving party, but “unsupported allegations or affidavits setting forth ‘ultimate or conclusory facts and conclusions of law' are insufficient to either support or defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Galindo v. Precision Am. Corp., 754 F.2d 1212, 1216 (5th Cir. 1985); see also Little, 37 F.3d at 1075. “No genuine dispute of fact exists if the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.” EEOC v. Simbaki, Ltd., 767 F.3d 475, 481 (5th Cir. 2014).

         If the dispositive issue is one on which the moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party “must come forward with evidence which would entitle it to a directed verdict if the evidence went uncontroverted at trial.” Int'l Shortstop, Inc. v. Rally's, Inc., 939 F.2d 1257, 1264-65 (5th Cir. 1991) (internal citation omitted). The nonmoving party can then defeat the motion by either countering with evidence sufficient to demonstrate the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact, or “showing that the moving party's evidence is so sheer that it may not persuade the reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in favor of the moving party.” Id. at 1265.

         If the dispositive issue is one on which the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden by pointing out that the evidence in the record is insufficient with respect to an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who must, by submitting or referring to evidence, set out specific facts showing that a genuine issue exists. See Id. at 324. The nonmovant may not rest upon the pleadings, but must identify specific facts that establish a genuine issue for trial. See, e.g., id.; Little, 37 F.3d at 1075 (“Rule 56 mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322)).


         A. Legal Requirements for Seaman Status

         “The Jones Act provides a cause of action in negligence for any seaman injured in the course of his employment.” Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 354 (1995) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Although the term “seaman” is not defined in the Jones Act, the Supreme Court has explained that “Congress intended the term to have its established meaning under the general maritime law at the time the Jones Act was enacted.” Id. at 355. The term seaman is synonymous with “master or member of a crew” under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act. Id. at 356-57.

         To qualify as a seaman, an employee must show (1) that his duties contributed to the function of a vessel or the accomplishment of its mission; and (2) that he had “a connection to a vessel in navigation (or to an identifiable group of vessels) that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature.” Id. at 368. The purpose of this test is to “separate the sea-based maritime employees who are entitled to Jones Act protection from those land-based workers who have only a transitory or sporadic connection to a vessel in navigation, and therefore whose employment does not regularly expose them to the perils of the sea.” Id.

         Whether an individual is a seaman is “ordinarily a question of fact for the jury.” Ellender v. Kiva Constr. & Eng'g, Inc., 909 F.2d 803, 805 (5th Cir. 1990). But “summary judgment may be appropriate where ‘the facts establish the lack of seaman status beyond a question as a matter of law' and no reasonable evidentiary basis exists to support a jury finding that the injured person is a seaman.” Id. at 805-06 (quoting Barrett v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 781 F.2d 1067, 1074 (5th Cir. 1986)); see also Chandris, 515 U.S. at 371 (explaining that summary judgment is warranted “where undisputed facts reveal that a maritime worker has a clearly inadequate temporal connection to vessels in navigation”).

         Plaintiff offers two rationales for his claim to seaman status. First, he argues that he has a substantial connection to defendant's work barges, which he asserts are vessels in navigation.[12] Second, plaintiff contends that he has a substantial connection to an identifiable fleet of vessels owned by one of defendant's customers, Kirby Inland.[13] As explained below, both arguments run contrary to governing law, and thus the Court finds no genuine issue of fact to support plaintiff's claim to seaman status.

         B. Defendant's Work Barges

         Defendant maintains that its work barges form a permanently moored work platform, and are not vessels in navigation.[14] Under the Jones Act and general federal maritime law, a vessel “includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” Stewart v. Dutra Constr. Co., 543 U.S. 481, 489, 491 (2005) (quoting 1 U.S.C. § 3). But the Supreme Court has explained that the term vessel under 1 U.S.C. § 3 does not mean “anything that floats.” Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, 568 U.S. 115, 126 (2013). A structure will not qualify as a vessel unless “a reasonable observer, looking to the [structure]'s physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water.” Id. at 121. Relevant physical characteristics can include the structure's capacity for self-propulsion, the existence of steering mechanisms, and its capacity to generate or store electricity. Id. at 121-22.

         A reasonable observer would not consider defendant's work barges to be practically designed for carrying people or things over water. The undisputed facts indicate that the work barges are secured to shore by, among other things, a permanent walkway, steel cables, and electricity lines.[15] The barges have no independent means of generating electricity and must be moved by tugboat because they have no means of self-propulsion.[16]Further, defendant's president, Mark Toepfer, represents that the work barges are not documented as vessels with the U.S. Coast Guard and are prohibited from moving.[17] The work barges operate according to a Facility Operations Manual approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, which describes the cleaning facility as a set of permanently ...

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