Fifth Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment in Favor of Vessel Owner in Jones Act Claim Regarding “Prompt and Adequate Medical Care”

In December 2018, the Fifth Circuit in Randle v. Crosby Tugs, LLC affirmed the lower court’s granting of summary judgment related to the plaintiff’s claim of Jones Act negligence. The plaintiff claimed that the vessel owner breached its duty under the Jones Act to provide the plaintiff with prompt and adequate medical care following a stroke by the plaintiff while working onboard the M/V DELTA FORCE.

The plaintiff had suffered a stroke while working and the captain of the vessel called 911. Emergency responders took the plaintiff to a nearby hospital where physicians failed to diagnose his condition correctly, and therefore the plaintiff did not receive the medication that could have improved his post-stroke recovery and he is now permanently disabled and is need of constant care.

At issue on appeal was whether the vessel owner could be directly liable or vicariously liable for the plaintiff’s condition. The plaintiff’s theory for direct liability was that the owner failed to provide prompt and adequate care as required by law. However, this duty varies depending on the circumstances of the case, and is based on getting a crewmember to a doctor when it is reasonably necessary and the ship is reasonably able to do so. Here, calling 911 was a course of action reasonably calculated to get plaintiff to a medical facility, and the Court found that the owner satisfied its duty to the plaintiff and was not directly liable to the plaintiff.

The Fifth Circuit also found that the vessel owner was not vicariously liable for the physician’s failure to properly diagnose the stroke. The Court noted that while shipowners are liable for injuries negligently inflicted on its employees by its officers, agents or employees, and that agent is given “accommodating scope,” the physicians in this case did not fit any of those categories. Shipowners can be liable for the on-board physicans it employs or the on-shore physicians that it chooses to treat its seamen, but the limit to agency is that one must be performing, under contract, the operational activities of the employer. Where, as here, an “unrelated third party” treats the seaman, there is no agency for purposes of vicarious liability. The vessel owner did not “manifest authority” to the physicians who mis-diagnosed the plaintiff because it did not select those physicians, the emergency responders took the plaintiff to the physicians at issue here based on state’s emergency network.

This case is an important reminder as to scope of the agency law for vicarious liability in the context of Jones Act negligence. It also illustrates how vessel owners can satisfy their duty to provide prompt and adequate medical care to Jones Act seafarers and avoid direct liability.

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