Injuries Caused By Unreasonably Slippery Conditions on Factory Trawlers

The Jones Act provides a remedy for fishermen or fish processors injured due to unreasonably slippery conditions on a factory trawler or other fishing vessel.  Whether a condition is unreasonably slippery will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case.  If you are injured on factory trawler due to an unreasonably slippery condition, you should consult with an experienced maritime injury lawyer to explain your rights under the Jones Act and general maritime law.

The Jones Act provides, in relevant part:

A seaman injured in the course of employment or, if the seaman dies from the injury, the personal representative of the seaman may elect to bring a civil action at law, with the right of trial by jury, against the employer. Laws of the United States regulating recovery for personal injury to, or death of, a railway employee apply to an action under this section.

 46 U.S.C. § 30104.  The quantum of evidence necessary to support a finding of Jones Act negligence is less than that required for common law negligence, Havens v. F/T POLAR MIST, 996 F2d 215, 218 (9th Cir. 1993), Ward v. American Hawaii Cruises, Inc., 719 F.Supp. 915, 917 (D. Haw. 1988), and even the slightest negligence is sufficient to sustain a finding of liability.  Havens v. F/T POLAR MIST, supra at 218.  The Jones Act standard of care is ordinary prudence under the circumstances.  Gautreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., 107 F.3d 331, 338 (5th Cir. 1997) (en banc).  This standard is designed to be very light; because seamen are considered wards of admiralty and the court, the Jones Act is interpreted broadly for their protection.  See, e.g., Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. v. Smith, 305 U.S. 424, 431, 83 L. Ed. 265, 59 S. Ct. 262, 266 (1939). 

Under the Jones Act, the Ninth Circuit holds that “the employer of a seaman owes the seaman a duty under the Jones Act to provide the seaman with a safe place to work."  Ribitzki v. Canmar Reading & Bates, 111 F.3d 658, 662 (9th Cir. 1997); Glynn v. Roy Al Boat Mgmt. Corp., 57 F.3d 1495, 1498 (9th Cir. 1995); Johnson v. Griffiths S.S. Co., 150 F.2d 224 (9th Cir. 1945).  The Jones Act was passed in 1920, and within three years the Ninth Circuit stated in Pan American Fisheries v. Hoof, 291 F. 306, cert. den., 263 U.S. 712, 44 S.Ct. 38:  “The duty of a master to provide a safe working place . . . is a positive and continuing one, and cannot be delegated.”  The seaman's employer is legally responsible for the negligence of the plaintiff’s co-workers while acting in the course and scope of employment.  See Gilmore & Black, The Law of Admiralty, 277 (2d Ed. 1975).  It is negligence to fail to protect employees from a known hazardous condition.  See, e.g., Perkins v. American Power Fuel Supply., Inc., 246 F.3d 593 (6th Cir. 2001).  Negligence is a legal cause of an injury or damage if it played any part, no matter how small, in bringing about the injury or damage. Therefore, even if the negligence operated in combination with the acts of another, or in combination with some other cause, the negligence was a legal cause of the injury or damage if it played any part, no matter how small, in bringing about the injury or damage.  Ninth Circuit Pattern Jury Instruction No. 9.1.3 (1997); Gapay v. Q&S Enterprises, 133 F. Supp. 2d 1139 (D. Alaska 2000).

Courts have consistently held employers liable for unreasonably slippery deck conditions.  See, e.g., Spinks v. Chevron Oil Co., 507 F2d 216 AMC 1165 (5th Cir. 1975); Cooper v. Loper, 1990 AMC 540 (D. N.J. 1990); Willener v. Deep Sea Enterprises, Inc., 1970 AMC 1238 (D. Or. 1969).  A deck that is unreasonably slippery is not fit for its intended use and is unseaworthy. For instance, in the notorious Supreme Court case of Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, 362 U.S. 539 (1960), the seaman lost his footing and fell from a ship’s rail that was covered with slimy fish gurry from unloading operations.  The Supreme Court held that the shipowner had a duty to furnish a ship reasonably fit for its intended use and that the rail was unsafe.  See also Jeter v. Star Fish & Oyster Co., 482 F.2d 457 (5th Cir. 1973) (fish slime on the dock was unseaworthy condition); Martin v. Harris, 560 F.3d 210 (4th Cir. 2009) (fall on fish slime and gurry on the dock); Robinson v. Pocahontas, Inc., 477 F.2d 1048 (1st Cir. 1973) (fish slime unreasonably slippery); Bates v. Merritt Seafood, Inc., 663 F. Supp. 915 (D.S.C. 1987) (same).

Further, under the general maritime doctrine of unseaworthiness, “[a] shipowner has an absolute duty to ‘furnish a vessel and appurtenances reasonably fit for their intended use.”  Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539, 550 (1960).  Unseaworthiness is found where the vessel is engaged in an unsafe method of operation.  Morales v. City of Galveston, 370 U.S. 165 (1962).

A vessel's condition of unseaworthiness might arise from any number of circumstances. Her gear might be defective, her appurtenances in disrepair, her crew unfit.  The number of men assigned to perform a shipboard task might be insufficient.  The method of loading her cargo, or the manner of its stowage, might be improper. 

Usner v. Luckenbach Overseas Corp., 400 U.S. 494, 91 S. Ct. 514, 517-518, 27 L. Ed. 2d 562 (1971) (internal citations omitted); see also Webb v. Dresser Indus., 536 F.2d 603, 606 (5th Cir. 1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1121, 97 S. Ct. 1157, 51 L. Ed. 2d 572 (1977).  Gear, tools and other obstructions on the deck may amount to an unseaworthy condition.  See, e.g., Billedeaux v. Tidex, Inc., 1994 AMC 1103 (5th Cir. 1993); Barlas v. United States, 279 F. Supp. 2d 201 (S.D. N.Y. 2003) (finding the presence of debris on the deck of a passageway constituted an unseaworthy condition). The duty to provide a seaworthy vessel is absolute and nondelegable.  American President Lines, Ltd. v. Welch, 377 F.2d 501 (9th Cir. 1967), cert. denied, 389 U.S. 940, 88 S.Ct. 294; Hudson Waterways Corp. v. Schneider, 365 F.2d 1012 (9th Cir. 1966); American President Lines, Ltd. v. Redfern, 345 F.2d 629 (9th Cir. 1965).  Liability for unseaworthiness is not dependent upon a showing of fault.   Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539, 550 (1960).

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