Louisiana Record

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Fifth Circuit overturns summary judgment in longshoreman's death

By David Hutton | Dec 28, 2017

NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court’s ruling in a negligence lawsuit stemming from an accident in which a longshoreman stepped through a hole in a decommissioned oil platform and plunged 50 feet to his death.

The circuit panel hearing the case included Judges Thomas M. Reavley, Leslie H. Southwick and Jennifer Walker Elrod.

Reavley wrote the circuit court’s Dec. 18 opinion, which overturned a district court’s decision granting summary judgment to Manson Gulf LLC, determining that there was no liability under the three Scindia duties: a turnover duty, a duty to exercise reasonable care in the areas of the ship under the active control of the vessel and a duty to intervene.

The Fifth Circuit reversed the summary judgment ruling with respect to the duty to warn of hidden dangers

Angie LaFleur filed the lawsuit after her husband, James “J.J.” LaFleur, fell 50 feet to  his  death  on June 16, 2015, after stepping through a hole in a decommissioned oil platform.

The platform sat atop a barge chartered by Manson Gulf, which ordered work that included creation of the hole. However, the company did not cover the hole or warn LaFleur of its existence.

LaFleur was an independent contractor employed by Modern American Recycling Services (MARS). He was walking on the platform with Jeff Smith, a MARS foreman, when he fell through the hole and landed on the  barge below.

“As a preliminary matter, we agree with the district court that neither the active control duty nor the duty to intervene apply to this case,” Reavley wrote. “Both liability theories fail for the same reason: it is undisputed that all Manson personnel departed the barge prior to J.J.’s fall.”

The circuit court ruled it disagreed with the lower court in granting summary judgment on Manson’s turnover duty.

Reavley wrote that Manson had knowledge of the hole or was in a position to know of its existence and related danger.

There was evidence that the hole was a hidden hazard and Smith testified that the grating on a platform can be a hazard because it can play tricks on the eyes. LaFleur likely didn’t see the hole until he was right there.

In photographs, the court noted it can be difficult to see the hole from the vantage point of a person approaching the hazard.

In discussing the scope of liability which it said fell outside the narrow window of in West v. United States, the court sided with LaFleur.

“When control of the structure was turned over, a warning was given about oil but not holes — and this is more than a hole in the grating,” Reavley noted. “Unseen is a hole in the platform underneath, and if a man slips or steps over the edge of the hole, he will fall to a terribly painful death. Surely, this danger could be found to constitute a latent hazard. And, moreover, this case involves a stevedore retained by the vessel owner to remove a structure for scrap, not to repair or inspect for particular known dangers. It is thus outside West’s narrow liability bar.”

The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

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Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals