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Marine & Energy News Alert: 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Rules International Safety Management Code Cannot Be Used By Longshoremen Against Shipowners

April 27, 2015

As the first federal appellate court to address the issue, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that the International Safety Management Code (“the Code”) did not impose duties on a shipowner that would supersede the existing legal obligations under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (“the Act”) as interpreted by Scindia.

The Plaintiff in Horton v. Maersk Line, Ltd. was working as a longshoreman aboard a ship when a crane operator dislodged a twist-lock from one of the containers. The twist-lock fell and struck the Plaintiff on the head causing a broken neck. The Plaintiff sued the owner of the ship and the owner of the containers. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the shipowner and the Plaintiff appealed.

One of the Plaintiff’s claims was based on the premise that the shipowner breached its duty to the longshoreman by failing to properly supervise cargo operations. The owner of the ship argued that its duties to Plaintiff were quite narrow once the stevedore started the loading and unloading of the ship. The Plaintiff argued that the Code mandated that a Safety Management System Manual be kept onboard the vessel for the crew’s use, and that manual requires the vessel’s officers to supervise and ensure safe cargo loading.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Code was unavailing because it does not impose any duties on the shipowner that would supersede the existing legal obligations outlined in the Act. As the United States Supreme Court has explained, the Act imposes three limited duties on a shipowner: (1) a shipowner must turn over the ship and its equipment in a condition that permits a stevedore to do its work with reasonable safety, and must warn the stevedore of any hidden dangers of which it knows or should know, (2) the shipowner may rely on the stevedore to perform its work with reasonable care, and there is no duty to supervise the stevedore absent contract provisions, positive law, or custom to the contrary, and (3) the shipowner must intervene only when it becomes aware that the ship, its equipment or gear poses a danger to the stevedore and is also aware that the stevedore is acting unreasonably to protect the longshoreman, and this duty is limited, however, because the creation of a shipowner’s duty to oversee the stevedore’s activity and insure the safety of longshoremen would saddle the shipowner with precisely the sort of nondelegable duty that Congress sought to eliminate. Scindia Steam Navigation Co. v. De Los Santos, 451 U.S. 156 (1981). Under the Act, there is no duty on the part of the shipowner to supervise the stevedore. The issue addressed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals was whether the Code imposes such a duty.

The Code, which is part of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, was also implemented by Congress. The Plaintiff specifically relied on the safety management system that must be implemented pursuant to the Code’s regulations. If a shipowner does not comply with these regulations, then it may face a civil penalty or a revocation of its Coast Guard clearance. Despite this, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately held that the Plaintiff could not rely on the Code to support his negligence claim against the shipowner and upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the shipowner.

Horton v. Maersk Line, Ltd., No. 14-14450, 2015 WL 845577 (11th Cir. Feb. 27, 2015).