Chalos & Co Obtains Defense Verdict in Jones Act Case

Michelle Otero Valdés of Chalos & Co’s Miami Office and her husband Manuel F. Valdés successfully defended a yacht owner against a former employee’s Jones Act negligence claim in a 1-week Zoom trial in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The case arose after the yacht’s chief stewardess was allegedly injured after hitting a wake while aboard the yacht’s tender during a purported sea trial of the tender. The plaintiff alleged she was in the course and scope of her employment with the yacht at the time of her accident aboard the tender and sought over $2 million in damages.

The case was first won at the trial level by Ms. Otero Valdés on summary judgment, as the district court found the crewmember failed to present a genuine issue of fact as to whether she was acting within the course and scope of her employment when she was injured. The crewmember appealed that decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which remanded the case back to the trial court, stating that in evaluating whether the crewmember was within the course and scope of her job with the yacht, the trial court needed to evaluate the case under the guidance provided in Fowler v. Seaboard Coastline R.R. Co., 638 F.2d 17, 20 (5th Cir. Unit B Feb. 1981). The Eleventh Circuit found that Fowler stands for the proposition that acts that are incidental to an employee’s work can fall within the course of her employment, even is the employee is not performing her customary job duties. Fowler, 638 F.2d at 20 (discussing the meaning of “within the scope of employment” to determine liability under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), 45 U.S.C. § 51). However, a reading of Fowler makes clear that Jones Act protections do not cover personal activity engaged in by the employee for a private purpose and having no causal relationship to her employment. Id. at 18-19.

The Eleventh Circuit also relied on Beech v. Hercules Drilling Co., L.L.C., 691 F.3d 566, 572 (5th Cir. 2012), which states that “to hold an employer vicariously liable under the Jones Act for one employee’s injury caused by the negligence of a co-employee, a plaintiff must show that the injured employee and the employee who caused the harm were both acting in the course of their employment at the time of the accident”. Again, the court focused on the course and scope of employment as it pertained to the captain and his piloting of the alleged tender during the purported sea trial at the time the plaintiff was injured.

After carefully reviewing all the evidence in the case after it was remanded, the trial court found that the plaintiff had not met her burden to show that she was acting within the course and scope of her employment on the day of her accident. The court concluded that she was engaged in a family outing with the captain who was her then boyfriend, her daughter and a married couple that were personal friends of the couple. The court determined that the activity was not advancing a business interest of the yacht owner and it was not foreseeable to the yacht owner that the activity was to be engaged in by either the plaintiff or the captain. The court noted that the Jones Act does not apply to private acts by a crewmember and emphasized that the Jones Act is not a strict liability scheme.

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