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Johnson v. American Commercial Barge Line, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

December 20, 2019


         SECTION A(1)



         The following motions are before the Court: Motion for Summary Judgment (Rec. Doc. 35) filed by Associated Terminals, LLC; Motion for Summary Judgment (Rec. Doc. 41) filed by J. Aron & Co., LLC; Motion for Summary Judgment (Rec. Doc. 39) filed by American Commercial Barge Line, LLC. Plaintiff, Alikea Johnson, has responded to all of the motions. The motions, submitted for consideration on October 2, 2019, are before the Court on the briefs without oral argument.[1]

         I. Background

         At all times pertinent, plaintiff Alikea Johnson was employed by defendant Associated Terminals, LLC as a forklift operator. Associated is a stevedoring company with multiple facilities along the Lower Mississippi River.

         This litigation derives from a work-related incident that occurred on April 30, 2018. On that day Johnson was operating a forklift inside the hold of a hopper barge, Barge MGT-0006 (at times referred to simply as “the Barge”), which was moored to an ocean-going bulk carrier, the M/V LIBERTY, midstream on the Mississippi River at Associated's Chalmette buoy. The LIBERTY contained a cargo of aluminum ingots. Johnson used his forklift to lift a load of the ingots and then attempted to place that load in a designated location inside the Barge. When doing so, the forklift fell over onto its left side which caused Johnson's lower right leg to become trapped under the front left vertical bar of the forklift's cage. Johnson contends that it was a dent/indentation/dip/hole in the surface on the Barge's floor that caused the forklift to fall over.[2]

         The Barge MGT-0006 was owned by American Commercial Barge Line, LLC (“ACBL”). ACBL's business is to move its customers' freight from origin to destination. ACBL does not load or unload barges; its barges are all unmanned.

         The business transaction underlying this litigation was as follows: J. Aron & Co., LLC purchased a quantity of aluminum ingots from Traxys North America, LLC. The ingots were transported to Chalmette, Louisiana on the LIBERTY. In the spring of 2018, Traxys retained Associated to offload for transportation the ingots that J. Aron had purchased. Multiple barges were needed to perform the offloading operation. J. Aron retained ACBL (pursuant to a pre-existing Contract of Affreightment between those parties) to provide cargo barges and to pilot them to their ultimate destination once loaded. The ultimate destination was in Little Rock, Arkansas to a customer to which J. Aron had resold (or would resell) the aluminum ingots.

         The litigation began when Johnson filed suit against ACBL in state court. ACBL removed the case and Johnson later brought J. Aron and Associated in as additional defendants.

         As to Associated, who was Johnson's employer, Johnson alleges that he is a Jones Act seaman, and alternatively that Associated is liable for vessel negligence under § 905(b) of the LHWCA.[3]

         As to J. Aron, the shipper, Johnson contends that it exercised sufficient dominion and control over the Barge MGT-0006 to be deemed its owner pro hac vice and therefore subject to liability for vessel negligence. Should the Court determine that J. Aron was not an owner pro hac vice of the Barge MGT-0006 (and therefore not subject to a claim for vessel negligence), Johnson contends that J. Aron is liable under general maritime law for its own negligence.

         As to ACBL, the vessel owner, Johnson contends that as owner of the defective barge, ACBL is liable for vessel negligence for violating the turnover duty and the duty to intervene.[4]

         This is a nonjury case. At this time the case is not scheduled for trial.[5]

         All defendants now move for summary judgment. The Court addresses each of their motions in turn.

         II. Discussion

         Summary judgment is appropriate only if “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, ” when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-movant, “show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact.” TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James, 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir.2002) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)). A dispute about a material fact is “genuine” if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505.). The court must draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505). Once the moving party has initially shown “that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case, ” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986), the non-movant must come forward with “specific facts” showing a genuine factual issue for trial. Id. (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio, 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986)). Conclusory allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation do not adequately substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Id. (citing SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir.1993)).

         In bench trial cases the district judge has greater discretion to grant summary judgment. Jones v. United States, 936 F.3d 318, 323 (5th Cir. 2019). The district judge may “decide that the same evidence, presented to him or her as a trier of fact in a plenary trial, could not possibly lead to a different result.” Id. (quoting Johnson v. Diversicare Afton Oaks, LLC, 597 F.3d 673, 676 (5th Cir. 2010)).

         1. Associated Terminals, LLC

         Associated moves for summary judgment arguing that Johnson is not a Jones Act seaman and that Associated cannot be held liable on Johnson's alternative claim for vessel negligence because it was not the owner pro hac vice of the Barge MGT-0006.[6]

         Regarding the Jones Act claim, Associated argues that Johnson cannot establish seaman status because he lacks the requisite connection to a vessel in navigation. See Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347 (1995) (clarifying the requirements for seaman status). In response to this aspect of Associated's motion, Johnson acknowledges that at this time (all discovery is complete) he lacks the evidence necessary to prevail on seaman status. Although he does not voluntarily concede that he was not a seaman, he advises that he will not offer any opposition to Associated's motion insofar as it challenges seaman status. (Rec. Doc. 49, Opposition at 2, 11-12).

         Associated's motion for summary judgment will be granted as to the Jones Act claim and as to any claims asserted against Associated under general maritime law that are premised on seaman status. As to all defendants, ...

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