I’ve previously generated a case note on identifying the employer-employee relationship. This issue was front and centre again in the recent decision of the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Michael Henry Smith v BP America Inc (Wilson, Jordan and Anderson JJ, 5 July 2013, unreported).
During the oil spill following the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, Mr Smith (plaintiff) found work as a boat hand through Marine Contracting Group LLC, a labour hire agency. He was placed in the employ of Oil Recovery Company (ORC) where his duties were to install and maintain floating oil barriers off Orange Beach in Alabama. While performing these duties on 12 May 2010 he fell overboard. Later that day he was dismissed as “an unsafe and problem employee”.
The (self-represented) plaintiff brought proceedings in the US District Court for the Southern District of Alabama against Moran Environmental Recovery LLC (Moran) (this company’s relationship to ORC and BP is not explained in the judgment) based on claims –
- In negligence under the Jones Act
- For maintenance and cure (that is, living and medical expenses) under general maritime law
- For unseaworthiness under general maritime law
The plaintiff settled his claim against Moran. His case against BP proceeded to discovery. The Court denied his motions to compel discovery of very broad classes of documents (e.g. “all photographs related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster”) but ordered narrower discovery. Following discovery he sought partial summary judgment, being a determination that BP was his employer. BP sought summary judgment dismissing all of his claims. The plaintiff’s application was rejected. The defendant’s motion was upheld on the grounds that –
- the defendant was not the plaintiff’s employer, defeating his Jones Act and maintenance and cure claims; and
- the plaintiff had not established that BP owned the boat from which he fell or that it’s unseaworthy condition caused his injuries.
The plaintiff’s application to set aside this decision was denied.
The plaintiff appealed against –
- The denials of his motions for discovery, partial summary judgment, and alteration or amendment of the judgment;
- The grant of summary judgment to the defendant.
- Denial of discovery
The Court of Appeals confirmed that an abuse of discretion is needed to reverse a trial court’s refusal to compel discovery. No such abuse had been shown as the burden of the plaintiff’s request outweighed its likely benefit and the narrower class of documents BP was ordered to produce was sufficient to resolve the claims.
- Denial of partial summary judgment and grant of summary judgment to BP on the Jones Act and maintenance and cure claims.
The Court of Appeals noted that a plaintiff must establish an employee-employer relationship against a defendant to found a claim under the Jones Act or in a claim for maintenance and cure. The presence of control was key to identifying an employer. Control can be shown by (inter alia)
- Direct evidence of the exercise of control over an plaintiff;
- Payment of wages the plaintiff’s wages
- Providing equipment required for the plaintiff’s duties
- Evidence that the employer had the right to terminate its relationship with the plaintiff.
BP’s evidence established that the plaintiff was hired by Marine Contracting to work for ORC which was an independent contractor with BP. BP could neither hire, fire, supervise nor control ORC employees.
- Grant of summary judgment to the defendant in respect of the seaworthiness claim.
The Court of Appeals confirmed that “a shipowner has an absolute duty to furnish a seaworthy ship” and that if a seaman is injured by an unseaworthy ship, they may seek recovery from its owner. The plaintiff’s evidence did not establish the boat’s owner, identify any unseaworthy condition, or link any such putative condition to his injuries. As such, summary judgment for BP was properly granted.
- Denial of alteration or amendment of the judgment
The test for an appeal of a denial of a motion to alter or amend a judgment is the abuse of discretion. No such abuse could be identified.
The Court of Appeals dismissed the plaintiff’s appeal.