In Johnson v. GlobalSantaFe Offshore Services, Inc., 2015 WL 4878556, the plaintiff served as a superintendent aboard a drilling rig off the coast of Nigeria and was seriously injured after being shot in the leg by Nigerian gunmen invading the drilling rig. The plaintiff brought claims against the righands for negligence under general maritime law. The righands failed to remove equipment from the lower stairs of the drilling rig, which prevented the stairs from being raised, allowing the gunmen aboard. In affirming summary judgment for the payroll company that paid the righands, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit expressly addressed the standard for establishing an employment relationship in the context of vicarious liability for employee negligence under general maritime law.
The righands worked under the instruction of Transocean Support Services Nigeria Limited, but were paid through an indirect subsidiary, GlobalSantaFe Offshore Services, Inc. ("GSF"). GSF served as a payroll company for U.S. citizens working for Transocean subsidiaries aboard and was listed as the employer on the righands' W-2 forms. GSF also occasionally assisted with immigration matters for righands while abroad. The plaintiff worked aboard the rig as a superintendent pursuant to a contract with a third party company.
Prior to Johnson, the Fifth Circuit had not expressly articulated a test for establishing what constitutes an employee for the purposes of vicarious liability for negligence under general maritime law. After discussing common law standards for borrowed servants and independent contractors, the court centered its analysis on the common law standard of control of the employee, including the right to hire, fire and to direct the details of their work. The court reasserted established precedent that "[c]ontrol is the most important factor in identifying an employment relationship under the general maritime law." Id. at *5 (Internal quotations and citations omitted). The court noted that while "payment of wages is relevant to control, it is not dispositive." Id. The court further rejected the plaintiff's attempt to apply Jones Act vicarious liability standards to the facts of the case.
Despite the fact that GSF paid the righands and was the named employer on their W-2 forms, there was no evidence of control of the righands by GSF, such that no reasonable jury could find GSF was their employer. Consequently, summary judgment was affirmed in favor of GSF based on general maritime law standards of agency. The righands did not have an employer-employee relationship with GSF sufficient to allow the plaintiff to recover for his gunshot wounds based on a theory of vicarious liability for negligence under general maritime law.
To view a copy of the decision in Johnson v. GlobalSantaFe Offshore Services, Inc., click here.