Appeals Court Rejects Injured Savannah Dockworker’s Lawsuit Against Cargo Ship Owner

Most people who are injured on the job are covered by Georgia’s workers’ compensation system. But there are different rules in place for people who work certain types of jobs, such as longshoremen who load and unload commercial ships in port. These workers are covered by a separate federal statute, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA), which is designed to provide benefits to injured longshoremen while also establishing the relative liability of the shipowner and the stevedore, i.e., the firms that actually provide longshoremen services.

Purvis v. Line

A recent decision from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Purvis v. Line, demonstrates how the LHWCA works in practice. This particular case involved an accident that occurred while a container ship, the Anna Maersk, was docked at the Port of Savannah in December 2015. The plaintiff worked as a longshoremen at the port. He arrived for his shift one night to begin unloading the Anna Maersk, which he had done several times before.

The plaintiff’s work required him to climb up a ladder to a lashing bridge. There was a metal hatch cover at the top of the ladder. The hatch was already open when the plaintiff made his initial climb up to the lashing bridge.

At some point, the plaintiff needed to go back down the ladder. It was dark out and the area was poorly lit. The hatch cover was still over, but due to poor lighting, the plaintiff said he could not see if the cover was properly latched in a secure position. The plaintiff proceeded to go down the hatch. As he reached the top of the ladder, however, the hatch “came crashing down on his head.” This caused the plaintiff to fall from the ladder to the deck below.

Unfortunately, the plaintiff sustained a serious spinal cord injury during the fall. He was unable to work for a year following the accident. The plaintiff subsequently sued the owner of the Anna Maersk for negligence under the LHWCA.

But a federal judge in Georgia, and later the 11th Circuit, granted summary judgment to the shipowner, dismissing the plaintiff’s lawsuit. The appeals court explained why the plaintiff could not make a case for negligence under the LHWCA. Basically, the law only requires the shipowner to “avoid exposing the longshoremen to unreasonable hazards.” The owner is not expected or required to actively supervise the longshoremen, who remain under the control of the stevedore.

But the owner does owe what is known as a “turnover duty” to longshoremen such as the plaintiff. This means the owner must turn over the ship and its equipment “in such condition that an expert and experienced stevedoring contractor” will be able to load or unload the ship safely with the “exercise of ordinary care.” Here, the plaintiff alleged that the ship’s owner breached the turnover duty, either because the hatch cover was somehow defective, or because an employee of the owner “must have opened the hatch and failed to latch it.”

The 11th Circuit said neither theory was supported by the evidence presented. There was no testimony in the record explaining “why the hatch cover fell” or “what the alleged defect is.” Even if an employee of the owner had left the hatch open without properly latching it, the plaintiff, as a “reasonably competent longshoremen” should have identified the problem and fixed it before going back down the ladder. In either case, there were no legal grounds to find the vessel owner liable for the plaintiff’s accident under the LHWCA.