As discussed in many Legal Lookout articles over the past 12 years, maritime law is replete with byzantine legal principles, many of which have millennia-old roots in ocean shipping’s vast history. Every so many decades we get a new statute or treaty that tweaks or rewords an existing concept, or introduces new accommodations for more recent technology. When we do see change, it doesn’t seem to come without some measure of confusion from both industry and the bar.
A recent case in point involved maritime law’s Ryan Doctrine. Taking note of common law concepts of “borrowed servant” liability and equitable indemnity, admiralty courts recognized the harsh consequences employers face in personal injury cases for exposing maritime workers to unseaworthy conditions. Water carriers, fishing companies and all other maritime employers bear an absolute and nondelegable duty to provide only seaworthy vessels as their employees’ work place. A vessel is “unseaworthy” if it contains any component or equipment that is “not reasonably fit for its intended purpose.” What renders a vessel unseaworthy in the eyes of plaintiffs’ lawyers and courts can be staggering. Just take a look at cases addressing a cruise liner’s broken ice cream scoop, or a fish boat bunk’s lumpy mattress, as bases for unseaworthiness claims. Those on the defense side of maritime personal injury litigation uniformly agree there isn’t a vessel afloat that couldn’t be ruled “unseaworthy” under the term’s legal definition.
Aware of their potential exposure, the U.S. Supreme Court cut shipowners some slack with its 1956 decision in Ryan Stevedoring Co. v. Pan-Atlantic Steamship Corp. There, maritime law was adjusted to empower maritime employers to obtain reimbursement (“indemnity,: in law-speak) from entities to which they have ceded control over their vessels to perform certain services. If the contracting entity causes or allows an unseaworthy condition to injure the vessel owner’s employee, it has to pay his/her claim, and pay back the vessel owner’s defense costs. The Ryan Doctrine originally applied to longshore (i.e., land-based) workers, but was extended to include Jones Act seamen (seafarers attached to a particular vessel or fleet).
The Third Circuit, encompassing the Mid-Atlantic States including Pennsylvania, recently examined the Ryan Doctrine’s current applicability as part of a vessel owner’s attorney-fee claim. The employee of a company that provides towage services allegedly was injured while his tug was under a barge line’s control. The seaman sued a series of related entities including both the tug and barge owners, asserting that an unseaworthy condition caused his accident. The barge line defended the unseaworthiness claim successfully (i.e., no vessel equipment unfit for its intended purpose caused the seaman’s injury), but not until the towage company had spent some 296 grand defending the claim.
Affirming the Western District of Pennsylvania trial court’s award to the tug owner, the Third Circuit somewhat sheepishly concluded that the barge line did have to pony up the employer’s defense costs based on the law’s current state. The court rejected the barge line’s argument that the Ryan Doctrine was a just an obsolete vestige of maritime law that had, or should have, been eviscerated by 1972 amendments to the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (which governs longshore personal injury claims). Courts have applied the rule since then to Jones Act seamen’s claims.
In reaching its conclusion, the Court of Appeals recognized that the Ryan Doctrine is a “rough, all-or-nothing device … that often yields inequitable results.” That the claim was based on a nonmeritorious assertion of unseaworthiness was irrelevant; the seaman’s mere allegation in his complaint sufficed to trigger the doctrine. The tug company’s defense costs may have had little or nothing to do with the successful defense of the seaman’s unseaworthiness claim. Perhaps holding the barge line liable for only those defense costs the tug company incurred defending the unseaworthiness claim would have been fairer. As the barge line argued, high courts have adjusted prevailing maritime legal doctrines to account for such inequities.
But here, the court’s hands were tied. Because the court wasn’t sitting en banc (a mechanism within federal appellate process whereby a circuit’s entire panel of judges can gather and issue a decision impacting the state of the law), and given clear pronouncements by the Supreme Court and other federal courts, the award had to be affirmed. The Third Circuit’s opinion does everything but apologize for its ruling.
Maritime law’s venerability may have many virtues, including the reliable uniformity that is its principal concern. Flexibility to courts in circumstances like this isn’t one of them.
Ref: In the Matter of the Complaint of J.A.R. Barge Lines, L.P., et al., 2010 WL 1303464 (3rd Cir. 2010); Ryan Stevedoring Co. v. Pan-Atlantic Steamship Corp., 250 U.S. 124, 76 S.Ct. 232, 100 L.Ed. 133 (1956).
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