COVID-19 Jones Act Lawsuit Leaves Maritime Employer Liability Unclear
(April 2021) - The widow of a sea captain recently settled a coronavirus-related maritime lawsuit – the first of its kind filed in Louisiana – leaving unclear the extent to which a maritime employer may be held liable in connection with contraction of the virus. The suit was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans under the Jones Act. Kathy Norwood, whose husband, Michael Norwood died of COVID-19 in a Mobile, Alabama hospital in April 2020, alleged that the owners of Rodi Marine LLC (Rodi) negligently exposed him to the virus while he was working on one of their offshore oil industry support vessels while in port in Mobile's Austal marine facility.
Three Rodi employees were working on the vessel in the Mobile shipyard, including Norwood, who was a licensed captain; another vessel captain named John Reed; and third unnamed deckhand. According to the lawsuit, in late March, Rodi instructed Reed to travel to New Orleans "to perform vessel captain services" for the company. After working several days for Rodi in New Orleans, Reed returned to the vessel in Mobile, began showing symptoms and was diagnosed with COVID-19. Claimant Norwood then allegedly caught the virus from Reed and died.
The suit alleges Reed was sent by Rodi to New Orleans at a time when the city was already known to be a coronavirus "hot spot" and after Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards had begun to shut down public gatherings and workplaces. It was further alleged, "Rodi had a duty under the Jones Act to provide a safe place to work and that means a boat that is not infected with a virus," and "[e]ither Rodi didn’t take the steps necessary to uphold their duty or Reed, a captain and an employee of Rodi, violated whatever protocol they had."
While there have been other civil cases wherein passengers have sued cruise ship operators in connection with exposure to the virus, this case appears to be the first in the country – and certainly in Louisiana – to allege negligence under the Jones Act for death or injury of a maritime worker arising from the current pandemic. Ultimately, this lawsuit settled, so we will have to await other cases to decide the extent of the duty of Jones Act employers for COVID-19 infections.