Jones Act Case Study: George “Jorge” Casas v U.S. Joiner, LLC and Northrup Gumman Ship Systems Inc.

Case Name: George “Jorge” Casas v U.S. Joiner, LLC and Northrup Gumman Ship Systems Inc.
Date Decided: August 7, 2009
Court: U.S.D.C. Southern District of Mississippi
Judge: Judge Guirola Jr.
Citation: 2009 WL 2448586

Background:
Before this Court were Motions to Dismiss and Summary Judgment filed by Defendant, U.S. Joiner LLC (“Joiner”). Plaintiff, George Casas (“Casas”) brought claims against defendants Joiner and Nortrup Gumman Services (“Northup”) under the Jones Act and general maritime law.

Casas, a resident of Texas, was employed by Land Coast Insulators, Inc. for the insulation of certain portions of an amphibious transport dock under construction in Northrup’s shipyard.  Joiner was a subcontractor of Northrup and Land Coast was a subcontractor of Joiner. Cases was injured while working in a compartment that had an unfinished floor consisting only of raised metal beams suspended between 12 and 18 inches off the bottom. Casas alleges that Defendants’ negligence cause him to slip, fall, and herniated several discs in his back.

Casas brought his claims in Hidalgo County, Texas District Court. The defendants, upon removal to the U.S.D.C. for the Southern District of Texas on basis of diversity jurisdiction, filed motions to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. That Court found insufficient contacts on the part of either defendant and granted both motions to dismiss.

Casas then brought this action in the Southern District of Mississippi?

Issue:
Did the Court grant defendants’ motion to dismiss based upon collateral estoppel and summary judgment on the general maritime claim?

Held:
Collateral estoppels applies, when in the initial litigation, the (1) issue at stake in the pending litigation is the same (2) the issue was actually litigated, and (3) the determination of the issue in the initial litigation was a necessary part of the judgment.

Joiner claims that because it was decided in the Southern District of Texas that Casas was not injured on a vessel and therefore Casas cannot state a maritime claim. This Court held that the first element is not met because Casas is not attempting to state a Jones Act claim as before but a general maritime claim.

Furthermore, Joiner claimed as a matter of law that Casas’s maritime tort allegations fail because vessels under construction give rise to neither a maritime contract nor a maritime tort. Under Fifth Circuit precedent, because the contract for the building of a ship is non-maritime in character, a tort arising out of work on a launched but incomplete vessel also lacks maritime flavor. The barge Casas was injured on was only partially completed and therefore, Joiner’s motion for summary judgment to Casas’s claim under general maritime law was granted.

Joiner also contendsthat Casas’s state-law negligence claims fail as a matter of law. The elements of negligence in Mississippiare, (1) duty, (2) breach of the duty (3) causation, and (4) injury.

Joiner argues that Mississippi law does not impose any duty upon it to Land Coasts’s employees because Land Coast was an independent contractor that maintained control of all aspects of the work its employees were performing on the barge.

Casas asserts however, that Joiner assumed a duty and that it was bound to perform it with care and is liable because it was done negligently.  However, this Court found that Casas’s injury arose out of the work his employer was contracted to do, which was to install insulation in the compartment.  Casas and his coworker testified that they first asked their own supervisor for plywood to lay over the scaffold, making Land Coast aware of the danger. Therefore, Casas failed to show that Joiner had a duty to him and granted summary judgment in favor of Joiner on Casas’s state-law negligence claims.

Comment:
Casas’s Jones Act claim failed because he was not injured on a “vessel” as required under the act. Furthermore, the general maritime negligence claim was denied because the construction of a vessel did not fall under the reach of maritime law.

A contractor may be liable to a subcontractor’s employee if they assume a particular duty. Casas failed to show that Joiner had sufficient knowledge of the dangerous condition leading to Casas’s injury. Furthermore, Casas’s employer, Land Coast, had control and knowledge of the dangerous condition but failed to remedy it. Therefore, Casas was unable to show Joiner had a duty to provide plywood to lay over the scaffold and this Court held, that as a matter of law, Joiner was not liable under a state-law negligence claim.

Steve Gordon
http://www.offshoreinjuries.com