In the U.S. Supreme Court case of “Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieraki” decided in 1946, they determined the remedy for unseaworthiness was available for people other than a seaman employed by the vessel owner. The Court held the “liability arises as an incident….of performing the ship’s service with the owner’s consent.” This duty for seaworthiness requires that the equipment and appurtenances of the vessel be fit for their intended service. The duty of seaworthiness is “peculiarly and exclusively the obligation of the owner. It is one he cannot delegate.”
Rivera v. Kirby Offshore Marine, L.L.C., — F.3d —- (2020):
On December 22, 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the trial court decision in RIVERA v. KIRBY OFFSHORE MARINE, L.L.C. The decision is instructive on when the Sieraki unseaworthiness remedy is available.
From June 2007 to July 2018, Captain Jay Rivera was a state-commissioned Branch Pilot for the Port Aransas Bar and Corpus Christi Bay. As a Branch Pilot, he assisted vessels in navigating the Port Corpus Christi Ship Channel and the LaQuinta Channel. Captain Rivera was a member of the Aransas-Corpus Christi Pilots Association (“Association”), an unincorporated pilots association. The Association regulates the rules and procedures of licensed pilots practicing on the Port Aransas Bar, the Corpus Christi Bay, and the surrounding tributaries. The Association collects pilotage fees earned by the members, uses the fees in a common fund, and makes pro rata distributions to its members. Captain Rivera was also the sole owner and officer of Riben Marine, Inc., an S-Corporation. Captain Rivera incorporated Riben Marine to receive his various forms of revenue.
On August 19, 2016, Captain Rivera was hired by Kirby Offshore Marine, L.L.C. (“Kirby”) to pilot the M/V TARPON from the Port Aransas sea buoy to Oil Dock # 11 in the Corpus Christi Harbor. The TARPON was indirectly owned and operated by Kirby. The TARPON was attached to a tug and barge unit. Captain Rivera could not board the TARPON without first boarding the barge. Captain Rivera traveled to the TARPON by pilot boat and boarded the TARPON using a ladder affixed to the barge. After boarding, Captain Rivera was greeted by David Hudgins, a Kirby employee who was assigned to escort him to the TARPON’s wheelhouse. As they headed toward the TARPON’s wheelhouse, Captain Rivera slowed down and lost sight of Hudgins.
To enter the wheelhouse, Captain Rivera had to climb over a two-foot-high bulkhead and through a watertight door. From the door, he had to use another step inside the engine-room hatch access door to step down to the interior deck area. The area was not well illuminated. When Captain Rivera reached the inside step, he stepped down toward the deck with his left foot. He landed on the hatch cover, rolled his ankle, and fell. Captain Rivera lay on the deck after his injury, where Hudgins eventually found him. Hudgins helped Captain Rivera the rest of the way to the wheelhouse. Once inside the wheelhouse, Captain Rivera requested ice and ibuprofen and reported his injury to Captain Crossman, the TARPON’s captain. Captain Rivera then piloted the TARPON to its intended destination.
Captain Rivera sought medical attention for his injury. Doctors confirmed that Captain Rivera fractured his left foot and eventually diagnosed him with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). After some time, Captain Rivera was declared medically unfit for his mariner certification due to his condition and lingering injuries. Upon recommendation from the Board of Pilot Commissioners, the Governor of Texas revoked Captain Rivera’s state harbor commission. After his commission was revoked, Captain Rivera lost his Association membership as well.
He then brought suit against Kirby under various maritime laws for negligence and vessel seaworthiness. Captain Rivera sought relief on alternative grounds for: (1) Kirby’s negligence under the common law, and (2) Kirby’s breach of the duty of a seaworthy ship under the above discussed Sieraki doctrine. After a seven-day bench trial, the district court issued Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law which concluded the TARPON was unseaworthy and awarding damages against Kirby. An appeal was then taken by Kirby.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit court determined that Captain Rivera was an independent contractor and not someone else’s employee. As a result, he was not covered for benefits under the Longshore Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA). They further found he was not a Jones Act seaman because he was neither a master or member of the crew of the TARPON. However, the Court did conclude he could recover on a seaworthiness claim under Sieraki.
To prevail on his Sieraki unseaworthiness cause of action, Captain Rivera had to prove Kirby “failed to provide a vessel, including her equipment and crew, which is reasonably fit and safe for the purposes for which it is to be used.” He was required to “establish a causal connection between his injury and the breach of duty that rendered the vessel unseaworthy.”
“To establish the requisite proximate cause in an unseaworthiness claim, a plaintiff must prove that the unseaworthy condition 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.”
The appellate Court found that Captain Rivera sufficiently demonstrated his injuries were caused by his fall over the unmarked hatch door and that the door was a tripping hazard which rendered the vessel unseaworthy. Therefore, they affirmed the district court’s finding that the TARPON was unseaworthy.
Click here to read the decision in its entirety.