Jones Act Case Study: Raymond Bartoe v. Missouri Barge Line Company INC., d/b/a Northern American Barge Line Inc., and Cape Girardeau Fleeting

Mike Schuler
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July 8, 2009

Case Name: Raymond Bartoe v. Missouri Barge Line Company INC., d/b/a Northern American Barge Line Inc., and Cape Girardeau Fleeting Inc.
Date: July 7, 2009
Court: U.S.D.C. – E.D. Missouri
Judge: District Judge Sippel
Citation: 2009 WL 1940379 (E.D. Mo)

Background: Before the Court were multiple motions for partial summary judgment made by the plaintiff, Raymond Bartoe (“Bartoe”), and the defendants.

Bartoe moved for partial summary judgment on the defendants’ assertion of primary duty doctrine as inconsistent with the Jones Act and on defendants’ assertion of limitation of liability. Defendants have moved for partial summary judgment, claiming ice does not render a vessel unseaworthy and Bartoe cannot establish the lack of additional deck crew caused his injuries.

Bartoe worked as a deckhand aboard the harbor tug M/V Coal Express in January 2007. When Bartoe began his shift on a cold evening, January 16, 2007, ice had already formed on the deck of the tug. Bartoe was the only deckhand aboard the tug that evening and worked to keep ice from accumulating upon the deck.

Bartoe claimed he injured his back when he slipped on ice on the tug’s deck and fell from the tug onto a barge in tow. Bartoe sued the defendants for negligence under the Jones Act, unseaworthiness under general maritime law, and for maintenance and cure.

The defendants claimed that Bartoe’s Jones Act claim was barred by the primary duty doctrine.

Bartoe claimed that ice on the deck and lack of adequate personnel rendered the vessel unseaworthy and that defendants were negligent by permitting or facilitating ice to accumulate on the deck through a variety of acts or omissions.

Issue: Whether the motions for partial summary judgment will be granted.

A motion for summary judgment will be granted if the evidence, viewed in light most favorable to the nonmoving party, demonstrates there was no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The Primary Duty Doctrine states that a seaman may not recover from his employer for injuries caused by his own failure to perform a duty imposed on him by his employment. The defendants argued they were entitled to the affirmative defense and Bartoe claimed the doctrine was inconsistent with the Jones Act.

The Court held the doctrine was inconsistent with the Jones Act’s rejection of contributory negligence and assumption of the risk as bars to recovery. Although it may reduce the amount of recovery, it is not a complete bar to recovery unless the plaintiff was the master of the vessel or upon a finding of affirmative misconduct. Here, Bartoe was not the master of the vessel and there was no evidence that Bartoe slipped on the ice because of his intentional and knowing decision to ignore the duty of removing ice from the deck.

Under the doctrine of unseaworthiness, a vessel owner has an absolute duty to furnish a seaworthy vessel. The plaintiff must show that: (1) the vessel was unseaworthy and, (2) that the unseaworthiness was the cause of injury. Bartoe argued the vessel was unseaworthy because of the accumulation of ice upon the deck and insufficient deckhands.

The Court granted the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of unseaworthiness for excessive ice accumulation because the presence of ice on the deck should have been reasonably expected on a tug in the Mississippi River on a cold January evening.

Bartoe claimed a second deckhand was necessary to remove ice that had already formed. Insufficient manpower can render a vessel unseaworthy.

The Court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to unseaworthiness for lack of sufficient deckhands because a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that Bartoe’s injury was a result of insufficient manpower because expert testimony stating another deckhand could have removed the ice Bartoe slipped on.

One element the plaintiff must prove under the Jones Act is the employer’s negligence. Bartoe claimed defendants breached their duty of care when the pilot operated the vessel in a way causing excessive ice to accumulate. Bartoe also claimed the defendants were negligent when they failed to provide a second deckhand to clear the ice.

Defendants argued that ice accumulation was inevitable, that harbor tugs were routinely operated with only one deckhand and Bartoe did not provide sufficient evidence to prove the lack of a second deckhand caused his injuries.

Under the Jones Act, the basis of liability rests on the showing of negligence and not the fact that an injury occurred. The Court denied the defendants’ motion on both issues. The Court found material issues of fact whether the operator of the M/V Coal Express caused too much accumulation of ice on the deck by traveling too fast on the river and whether Bartoe had enough time to clear the ice once the tug was moored. Moreover, Bartoe provided expert testimony that stated a second deckhand was needed to remove the ice accumulating at night thus presenting a material issue of fact whether another deckhand was needed.

Under a claim for unseaworthiness the employee must show that the vessel was unseaworthy and that the unseaworthiness caused the injury. In limited circumstances ice can make vessel unseaworthy. However, Bartoe failed to introduce evidence supporting this.

The success of a Jones Act claim lies in showing that the employer was negligent by breaching a duty of care. Bartoe was successful in avoiding summary judgment because he introduced expert testimony stating the operator of the tug may have caused excessive ice to accumulate and that a second deckhand was necessary to continually clear the ice.

Steve Gordon

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