Top Coat and Neches Gulf Settle Mooring Line Snapback Injury Case

Travis went to work at the age of 14, helping to frame roofs. He kept working, eventually winding up working for a company called Top Coat. At 23, he was now a rigger/pipefitter apprentice and was learning how to repair platforms offshore. As of March 2010, he’d been working offshore for several months, spending most of his time making sure the welding lines didn’t break or become damaged in any way.

He’d gone out on the M/V San Jacinto, a vessel owned and operated by Neches Gulf Marine, in March to fix the grading and decking on a non-producing platform that was to be taken out of the water. Top Coat would be on the platform, but all the welding leads would be managed from the San Jacinto since the platform didn’t have any power. The leads had been hooked up very close to where the mooring lines were located, and since the San Jacinto’s deck and railings were not in the best condition, he had to spend most of his days dodging mooring lines to keep the welding leads free from getting snagged, chafed, or broken.

Travis with his girlfriend

Working in the Danger Zone

On March 10, he had a near miss with a mooring line, which can snap back violently due to the motion of the water. The other Top Coat employee assigned to monitor the welding leads witnessed the near miss, but nothing different was done the next day to prevent the same thing from happening again. The area near the mooring lines on a vessel is notoriously dangerous, but neither Top Coat nor Neches took any steps to move the welding lines to a different part of the vessel or to protect Travis and his coworker. On the 11th, he went to work as usual, and he’d just adjusted a lead to be taped when a mooring line violently struck Travis in the torso, throwing him to the deck.

They were 80 miles offshore when Travis was hurt, and it took an 8-hour boat right to get him to the EMS attendants who were waiting at the dock. He was stabilized and then transported to Memorial Hermann where he underwent emergency exploratory surgery. Fluid was building up in his abdomen and the doctors were worried he’d ruptured his spleen. The surgery revealed that his spleen, although lacerated, thankfully didn’t need to come out. Travis spent seven days in the hospital after the exploratory surgery and was discharged with a still-hurting lower back and a broken rib.

Perfect Example of Delay, Deny, Delay Tactics Used By Defense Attorneys

Not wanting to lose his job, he returned to work on light duty as soon as possible. Unfortunately, even light duty aggravated his back so he had to quit working for Top Coat. He now had lots of medical bills, no income, forty staples in his abdomen, a hurt back, and a broken rib. He started looking online at his options, and found our website. After talking with Vuk, he hired us to help him with his case. Vuk filed a lawsuit against Top Coat and Neches Gulf Marine in Jefferson County in July 2010.

While the lawsuit was pending, Travis got a job working at 24-Hour Fitness, where his back wouldn’t be aggravated and he could still earn a living.  Top Coat and Neches refused to pay him maintenance and cure since they didn’t believe he was a Jones Act seaman.

Neches Gulf Marine and Top Coat fought the lawsuit any way they could. First, they argued that the case needed to be moved from state court to federal court. They denied liability, claiming that Travis not only caused his own injuries but that they were preexisting. And Top Coat argued that Neches was responsible for Travis’s injuries. Neches denied liability, and tried to limit their liability to the value of the M/V San Jacinto.

VB Attorneys Successful In Fight to Have Client Declared A Jones Act Seaman

We successfully got the case moved back to state court, a more favorable venue to Travis. After taking depositions, the defendants tried to use testimony to argue that Travis’s injuries weren’t covered by the Jones Act. They claimed that his job was land-based and that since he had nothing to do with the navigation of the vessel, he couldn’t be considered a seaman.  They also tried to say that since two-thirds of his employment for Top Coat had been land-based, the one-third of his employment that was spent on vessels in the Gulf of Mexico didn’t count either.

We fought back, using their arguments against them. We argued that an “employee need not aid in navigation or contribute to the transportation of the vessel, but rather must merely be doing ‘the ship’s work.’” We also argued that an employee only needs to spend at least 30% of his time in the service of the vessel for him to qualify as a Jones Act seaman. Travis’s Top Coat time sheets showed that he’d been reassigned from an onshore laborer to an offshore laborer. The judge ruled in our favor, and we were able to pursue his case under the Jones Act.

Being able to call Travis a Jones Act laborer meant we’d be able to go after not just his lost wages and previous medical bills, but his future lost wages and future medical needs as well. We hired experts to help us build up our case. In addition to medical and economic experts, we hired maritime experts to help us determine why Travis’s job had put him in harm’s way in the first place.

Despite Delaying Tactics, Travis's Jones Act Case Settles Favorably

The maritime experts inspected the San Jacinto and determined it to be in poor condition. They also determined that Top Coat and Neches knew the vessel needed repairs and that if the vessel had been repaired, Top Coat employees wouldn’t have been put in the path of the mooring lines in order to ensure the welding leads didn’t snag, chafe, or break due to the poor condition of the deck and railing. That finding helped us argue that Travis had been intentionally put in harm’s way.

When Neches tried to limit their liability to the value of the vessel, we fought back. Neches and Top Coat were using every trick in the book to avoid compensating Travis for his injuries. We were successful in removing their limitation of liability, finally getting Travis’s case back on track. The delaying tactics and legal hoops Neches and Top Coat were putting us through only strengthened our resolve to help Travis get the compensation he deserved. Once the limitation of liability was removed and Travis was declared a Jones Act seaman, we got the case set for mediation. Neches and Top Coat's tactics are textbook examples of what can happen in a Jones Act case. Vuk discusses why companies try to use these tactics in this video:

Mediation occurred in Houston in March of 2012. Almost two years after Travis’s accident, we sat down with Neches, Top Coat, and a trained mediator to try to come to an agreement. We didn’t come to an agreement on that day, but continued to negotiate until May 2012 when we were able to come to a satisfactory agreement. Travis’s case settled for a confidential amount.

After working with a rehabilitation consultant, Travis realized he wanted to continue his education and go into industrial safety. His accident had made him realize he wanted to spend his life keeping workers safe. He is using a portion of his settlement to obtain a degree in industrial safety and plans to keep working for a very long time to come. 

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