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Fifth Circuit Allows Seaworthiness Claim for Pilot Hurt on Seagoing Tug and Barge

January 08, 2021

The 5th Circuit recently affirmed a district court’s $11.6 million bench verdict in favor of a harbor pilot who rolled his ankle and injured his foot on a seagoing tug and barge.

Capt. Jay Rivera was hired as a state-commissioned pilot by Kirby Offshore Marine LLC to pilot Kirby’s seagoing tug and barge in Corpus Christi, Texas. While aboard the vessel, Rivera injured his foot when he tripped over a stair inside a hatch door.

Rivera sued Kirby for personal injury damages on alternative grounds for negligence under the common law, breach of the duty of a seaworthy ship under Seas Shipping Co., Inc. v. Sieracki, and negligently maintaining the vessel under Section 905(b) of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA).

Because the district court ruled that Rivera’s injuries kept him from working as a harbor pilot, the court awarded him damages for past and future pilot wages. This was significant, considering Rivera’s high yearly income as a pilot.

Kirby appealed. Kirby argued that Rivera was a proper plaintiff under Section 905(b) of the LHWCA and was therefore ineligible to bring a seaworthiness claim under Sieracki. Kirby claimed it could not be liable under this section of the act.

The 5th Circuit rejected Kirby’s argument. It affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the pilot was not covered by the LHWCA because he was an independent contractor not employed by anyone. Because the pilot was not covered by the LHWCA, the 5th Circuit agreed with the district court that he was a Sieracki seaman who could proceed on a seaworthiness claim against Kirby.

Please contact Adam Davis or any member of Phelps’ Marine and Energy team if you have questions or need advice and guidance.