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US Fifth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Seaman’s Slip and Fall Action

In Jones v. United States, the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment dismissing a Jones Act seaman’s claims for negligence and unseaworthiness arising from an alleged slip and fall on board a vessel.1 The decision provides valuable insight into a seaman’s burden of proof for causation and proper summary judgment evidence.

The seaman worked as an engineer aboard a vessel owned by the United States and operated by another entity. While making his rounds as a duty officer, the seaman entered the emergency diesel generator (EDG) room. According to the plaintiff, when he lifted his left foot over a hatch’s threshold, his right foot slipped, causing him to fall into some carbon dioxide containers and injure his arm. The accident occurred at night; however, the seaman had a flashlight with him and the deck area immediately outside the room was illuminated by fluorescent lights. The seaman testified during his deposition that he did not look down at the deck to see what caused him to slip and he did not notice anything out of the ordinary that evening. The seaman reported his injury the next day and simply claimed, “[A]s I was completing duty round I lost balance and fell into the CO2 bottles in the EDG room causing me to fall on my right forearm.”

At his deposition, in “retrospect” the seaman testified that he believed he slipped on grease on the deck. The testimony established that the vessel had cables above the weather decks that the crew greased regularly and that grease often dropped onto the deck. Nonetheless, the deck area immediately outside the generator room is covered by an overhang, thereby making it impossible for grease from the cables to fall directly onto the floor right outside this particular room. Thus, any alleged grease would have to be tracked or spread across the deck by the crew. Notwithstanding, the seaman testified that he did not observe any grease, either on the deck or on his shoes, at the time of the accident.

The seaman filed suit against, inter alia, the United States,asserting claims of negligence and unseaworthiness, as well as maintenance and cure.3 In response, the United States filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the seaman’s claims. Specifically, the United States argued that the seaman failed to present any evidence of the presence of grease on the decks at the time of the seaman’s accident. Essentially, without any evidence of grease, there was no evidence that the United States failed to provide a reasonably safe place to work. The district court agreed, finding that the seaman’s pure speculation about the presence of grease was insufficient to create a genuine dispute of fact as to what caused his accident. The seaman appealed to the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit noted that in order for a seaman to recover for Jones Act negligence, the seaman must show that the Jones Act employer’s negligence is the cause, in whole or in part, of his injury. Causation can be proven if “employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury” — also known as the “featherweight” burden of proof.4 The seaman contended that there was grease in multiple places on the vessel’s deck, and this was the likely cause of his fall. He also asserted that the district court prematurely decided issues of credibility. The United States countered that the seaman presented absolutely no evidence for the causation element of his claim. Specifically, the seaman did not believe he had slipped on grease or see grease on his shoes at the time of the accident. Moreover, neither the seaman nor any other witnesses observed grease outside the generator room.

Analyzing the evidence, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision and held that the seaman did not present sufficient evidence of causation to survive summary judgment. The seaman’s “speculation” and “unsubstantiated assertions” that he must have slipped on grease were insufficient to establish even the featherweight burden of proof. The Fifth Circuit noted that the seaman “never saw grease in the spot where he slipped, even when he later investigated his fall.” Because some evidence must complete “[t]he path from worker injury to employer liability,” the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the seaman’s Jones Act negligence claim.

Likewise, for the same reasons, the US Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the seaman’s unseaworthiness claims. The standard of causation for unseaworthiness is more demanding than Jones Act negligence and requires proof of proximate cause, meaning that the unseaworthy condition must have played a substantial part in bringing about or actually causing the injury and that the injury was either a direct result or a reasonably probable consequence of the unseaworthiness.5 Since the seaman could not satisfy the featherweight burden of proof under the Jones Act, he also could not satisfy the more demanding proximate cause standard.

The Fifth Circuit’s decision demonstrates that although a seaman need only meet the featherweight burden of proof, the seaman must present competent evidence to satisfy his or her burden of proof. In that regard, the seaman cannot rely upon mere speculation or unsubstantiated assertions.

1]Jones v. United States, C.A. No. 18-30776, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 26000 (5th Cir. Aug. 28, 2019).

2 The plaintiff also sued the entity that operated the vessel and actually employed the plaintiff.

Jones v. United States, 326 F. Supp. 3d 262, 267 (E.D. La. 2018) (Vance, J.).

4]Gautreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., 107 F.3d 331, 335 (5th Cir. 1997) (en banc).

Chisholm v. Sabine Towing & Transp. Co., 679 F.2d 60, 62 (5th Cir. 1982).

© 2020 Jones Walker LLPNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 268


About this Author

Sara Kuebel Maritime Lawyer Jones Walker

Sara advises clients in a broad range of disputes with a concentration in maritime litigation, including allisions and collisions, claims under General Maritime Law, the Jones Act, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Sara has also assisted in the drafting of amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sara earned her juris doctor degree, summa cum laude, from the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at Louisiana State University, graduating in the top two percent of her class and earning the Order of the Coif distinction...