Attempt to Avoid Jones Act Compliance Denied by Federal Court

Posted on May 04, 2016

Ingram BargeOn April 27, 2016, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee issued an Order denying the motion for summary judgment of Ingram Barge Company. This was a fully dispositive motion, which means that if the court would have granted the motion, Ingram would have won the case.

I represent Chase, a 25-year-old deckhand that suffered career-ending back injuries while working aboard Ingram’s M/V Willard Hammond in this case. The injuries required Chase to undergo two back surgeries.

In October of 2012, each day Chase was assigned to build tow with another deckhand throughout their 12-hour shift. The other deckhand refused to work throughout the majority of his shift, requiring Chase to carry the load of two workers by himself during the entire shift. On the last day of the 14-day voyage, Chase was woken up by so much low back pain that he was unable to get out of bed. He eventually got off the boat and saw his own doctor, who ordered an emergency back surgery after reviewing his MRI films.

In its April 27, 2016, Memorandum Opinion, the Middle District of Tennessee Federal District Court analyzed whether Chase bring his claims against Ingram for:

  1. the unseaworthiness of the M/V Willard Hammond
  2. its failure to pay maintenance and cure to trial.  

The court rejected Ingram’s arguments and found that all of Chase’s claims should be decided by a jury.

Chase brought claims for unseaworthiness due to Ingram’s failure to provide a competent crew. Ingram requires all of its crewmembers to sign a separation document each time they get off of the boat stating, amongst other things, that they have not been injured during the voyage. Chase’s boss told him to sign the separation document because he could not remember the exact moment his back began hurting. Chase followed his boss’s orders. 

The Court rejected Ingram’s arguments that Chase’s failure to report his injury on the separation document bars his unseaworthiness claims.

I was able to get the employee file of Chase’s lazy coworker, which showed over 20 writeups for safety infractions, insubordination, and lacking the motivation to do jobs assigned to him. These infractions began 5 years before Chase began working at Ingram and ended a year after Chase’s injury with the other employee being fired for watching TV while he was supposed to be working.

The court found there was sufficient evidence to go to trial because the other employee had been consistently chastised for the exact type of slacking off that would lead to Chase having to work alone in a job that required teamwork.

The lesson here is that a vessel can be deemed unseaworthy when a seaman is injured due to an incompetent crewmember’s laziness.

Ingram also failed to convince the US District Court that it was not required to pay maintenance and cure because Chase concealed a previous back injury in his pre-employment application. In 2009, two years before Chase was hired by Ingram, he had been in a car accident in which the vehicle rolled. Following this wreck he complained of back pain to a nurse practitioner. The nurse practitioner ordered an x-ray, which showed no injury to Chase’s back. As a result, the nurse practitioner told Chase that nothing was wrong with his back and ceased all treatment. Chase believed what the nurse practitioner told him and, when he filled out the Ingram employment application two years later, answered that he had never suffered a back injury. Ingram wanted to use the previous injury to avoid paying maintenance and cure, which requires maritime employers to provide money for food and lodging and to pay for all medical care during the period of injury or illness.

The court rejected Ingram’s argument that Chase, by failing to mention the previous back pain and negative x-ray, intentionally concealed a previous back injury.

After his injury on the M/V Willard Hammond, Chase was diagnosed with ruptured discs in his lower back. Within 10 days of getting off the boat, Chase underwent his first of two back surgeries. Chase’s treating doctor and medical experts believe that the ruptured discs were caused by his work on Ingram’s vessel. No doctors believe that Chase’s ruptured discs or his back surgeries were due to the 2009 car wreck.

The court found that since his treating nurse practitioner in 2009 told him that he did not have a back injury due to the negative x-ray results, a jury should decide whether Chase intentionally concealed a previous back injury on his pre-employment application.

In reaching this conclusion, the court sent a message to companies that it cannot escape its obligations to pay maintenance and cure by simply finding that a person complained of a similar injury and without having a qualified expert relate the previous injury to the injury sustained on the vessel.

After defeating Ingram’s attempts to dispose of his claims on legal technicalities, Chase will finally get the opportunity to take his case to a jury on July 7, 2016.