Second Circuit Court of Appeals Declines to Apply Maritime Rescue Doctrine to Injured Crew Member

The federal Court of Appeals issued an opinion in Barlow, Jr. V. Liberty Maritime, et al., at the beginning of this month that declined to reverse a district court ruling against an injured maritime worker. The injured worker had previously sought to include the "maritime rescue" doctrine in the jury instructions during his trial where he sought damages from the boat owner and employer for his injuries, alleging negligence and unseaworthiness of the boat.

The injuries happened while he was third mate onboard a cargo ship that was moored to a floating elevator grain. The boat was tied to several buoys, lines from the shore, and a tug boat. A few days after the mooring, early in the morning, one of the lines parted, and the tug began pushing away from the shore. The second mate notified the captain who ordered that the engines be started and the crew be assembled. As this happened, other lines began having trouble and parted from the ship.

The injured crewman arrived on the scene and argued with the second mate about how to slacken the lines. The injured crew member wanted to "bump the brake" as opposed to starting the motor and putting it in gear prior to paying out the line. The injured crew member was ordered to do nothing, but went to the one of the winches anyway and "bumped" the brake handle to loosen the grip of the winch before the motor was engaged. The line paid out wildly, went around the winch, and struck him.

The injured crew member sued for damages and the case went to trial where the boat owner and employer argued that the injured crew member's actions contributed to his injuries. In response, the injured crew member argued that he was acting under emergency circumstances and that the course of action that he took was to help save the ship and the crew. The injured crew member looked toward case law in other federal circuits that allow crew members to invoke the "maritime rescue doctrine". The crew member asked to apply that to the jury instructions which would require the jury to find his behavior "wanton and reckless" instead of just merely negligent, as they consider whether or not he contributed to his own injuries and reduce his award of damages.

The Court of Appeals looked at the established standard of a "reasonably prudent seamen faced with the same emergency". After looking at the history of negligence cases involving emergency scenarios, the Court of Appeals reasoned that maritime cases are fairly weighed when the facts involve a maritime emergency using the negligence standard; thus, it was unnecessary to adopt the "maritime rescue doctrine" from other circuits. The Court also declined to extend the higher standard to the injured crew member 's jury instruction and create greater potential of liability for the vessel owner and employer, because they did not think the actions were one that any reasonable mariner would have taken. The Court did not think that a reasonable mariner would have considered the event an emergency. The injured seaman was ultimately considered to be 90% negligent, but recovered 10% of damages from the employer and vessel owner.

The Washington maritime lawyers John Merriam and Gordon Webb have the experience you need pursuing a claim in the Federal 9th Circuit as an injured crew member. Even if you believe actions you took during the injury make you responsible recovery is still possible, like in the case described above. If you have been injured while working onboard a ship and would like to speak to one of our attorneys in a free, confidential consultation, contact us at 877.800.1007.

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