DEFENSE OF SEAMAN STATUS AND PUNITIVE DAMAGES

By Caitlin Morgenstern of Koch & Schmidt posted in Maritime Law on Wednesday, January 25, 2017.

In Ward v. Ehw Constructors, (USDC WDWA, December 22, 2016) the issues before the court were seaman status and punitive damages for failure to pay maintenance and cure. In May 2012, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded Defendants a contract to build an explosives-handling wharf. The project utilized several floating structures, including the Ringer II, which was an un-crewed floating platform comprised of interlocking flexi-floats. Each group of flexi-floats was held in place with anchors or “spuds” then maneuvered at the worksite either by tug or deck wenches. Support skiffs were also used to transport materials and laborers.

Defendants hired Plaintiff through Plaintiff’s local union for pile drivers. The parties disputed the type of work Plaintiff performed and whether he qualified as a seaman. Plaintiff asserted that his work was always out on navigable water. Defendants, on the other hand, asserted that Plaintiff was part of a construction crew that worked on the wharf, which was an extension of land, and not a seaman.

Defendants moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages. The court noted that the refusal to pay maintenance and cure cannot be willful and wanton if it is based on a reasonable defense. As a matter of first impression, the court held that because reasonable minds could differ on whether Plaintiff’s duties rendered him seaman, no rational juror could find Defendants’ opposition to maintenance and cure was in bad faith. Therefore, the court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment finding that punitive damages were unavailable.

Plaintiff moved for summary judgment on the issue of seaman status. To determine whether a plaintiff is a seaman, courts apply the substantial connection test. The Court noted that the focus is whether the employee’s duties are primarily sea-based activities in determining whether the nature of the connection to the vessel in substantial. The court found that issues remained on the quantity of Plaintiff’s work performed- from the staging, the skiffs, or the barge-and what tasks should be considered “sea-based activity.” The question also remained as to whether Plaintiff’s duties were “primarily sea-based activities.” In addition, issues of fact remained regarding whether the Ringer II or the floating platforms should be considered vessels in navigation. Therefore, the Court denied Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of seaman status.