This case involves crew members getting drunk at a bar and then running a small skiff into the head of a large northbound tow while trying to get back to the vessel they were assigned to. The vessel owner asked the court to dismiss the lawsuits against it on the basis that they were drunk and not within the course and scope of their employment. The court refused to do so.
Two mariners drowned to death while riding in a skiff back to their assigned towboat the M/V MELVIN KING. When the incident occurred, the skiff was being used to transport four crew members to and from a local bar.
It was uncontested that the crew members in the skiff were intoxicated. Video and eyewitness accounts confirmed they went to a bar and drank until the bartender felt they had enough. At some point, the MELVIN KING’s engineer also called to advise that the captain “was looking for them and to come back” to the vessel. Further, there was testimony that the captain wanted them to pick up some crawfish on the way back.
As the crew was riding the skiff back to the MELVIN KING, the skiff collided head-on with a northbound six-barge tow being pushed by the CECILE A FITCH. Two of the four crew members aboard the skiff died from impact.
The families of the deceased filed wrongful death lawsuits in state court against the owners of the MELVIN KING and CECILE A FITCH. Both vessel owners filed limitation actions which in turn stayed the state court lawsuits and shifted them to a federal court in Baton Rouge. Notably, both vessel owners then filed contribution and indemnity claims against the owner of the bar.
The owner of the MELVIN KING filed a motion to dismiss the wrongful death claims against it on two independent legal theories:
(1) the crew was not within the course and scope of the their employment such that it had no liability for the actions of the crew during collision; and
(2) the decision to drive the skiff to and from a bar to get drunk was a superseding cause that eliminated any of its responsibility.
The MELVIN KING’s motion was denied. Here is a brief discussion of the Court’s reasoning.
With respect to the course and scope argument, the court emphasized that the meaning of course of employment under the Jones Act is equivalent to "the service of the ship" formula used in maintenance and cure cases. Further, in the Fifth Circuit, the pertinent inquiry is whether the seaman’s actions “at the time of the injury were in the furtherance of his employer’s business interests.” With respect to seamen living aboard their designated vessels, it is generally recognized that authorized shore leave to attend to personal business including personal relaxation is within the course and scope of employment. Two exceptions of this rule include venereal disease and injuries caused by intoxication.
While it was uncontested the four skiff passengers had all consumed significant amounts of alcohol, the court determined there were still significant issues of fact regarding whether the occupants were within the scope of their employment at the time of the casualty. Specifically, the court determined there was conflicting evidence on each of the following issues:
Was the trip to the bar made with or without permission or authorization?
Did the trip violate company policies known by the crew?
Despite the no-alcohol policy, was the crew’s consumption of alcohol consistent with a condoned practice and culture of alcohol and drug use by crew members on duty?
Based on the conflicting evidence on these issues, the motion to dismiss based on the crew members being outside the course and scope of employment was denied.
With respect to superseding cause argument, the court refused to dismiss MELVIN KING’s owner for basically the same reasons discussed above. It found there were questions of fact regarding whether the trip to the bar was authorized by someone in a position to grant permission; whether the company policy in question was known and enforced; and whether the trip to the bar was consistent with an established and condoned practice/culture. Putting these issues of fact into the superseding cause framework established by the Fifth Circuit, the court determined there were material issues of fact regarding:
(a) whether the vessel owner should have realized the occupants of the skiff might so act;
(b) whether a reasonable man knowing the situation existing when the act of the skiff occupants was done would not regard it as highly extraordinary that the skiff occupants had so acted; and
(c) whether the conduct of the skiff occupants was a normal consequence of a situation created by the vessel owner’s conduct and the manner in which it was done was not extraordinarily negligent.
So based on these factual and legal issues the court determined were still in dispute, the motion to dismiss was denied.
The case caption for this decision is In the matter of Chester J. Marine LLC, Civil Action No. 20-cv-00214 (MDLA November 10, 2022). A publicly available copy of the decision can be viewed through the following link:
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