Murray v. Southern Route Maritime, SA et al., No. 14-36056 (9th Cir. 2017), relates to an on-the-job injury. The plaintiff, Roger Murray, was employed as a longshoreman wherein he was working on the defendants’ vessel. On the day of the incident, Murray was simultaneously holding a piece of rebar and climbing down a ladder. Unfortunately, during the descent, the metal rebar contacted the floodlight, which the vessel owner had provided. As a result, an electrical current flowed through Murray’s right arm, across his chest and out through his left pinky finger. Murray’s finger was left visibly burned. In addition to this physical injury, Murray also exhibited a number of other conditions after the incident, specifically balance and gait problems, stuttering and erectile dysfunction.
Murray sued the vessel owner for vessel negligence under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq. Specifically, Murray alleged that the vessel owner had negligently turned over the ship with a faulty floodlight in breach of the vessel owners’ turnover duty. Murray succeeded on his claim at the trial court level.
On appeal, the vessel owners argued that the trial court’s jury instruction regarding the turnover duty was flawed. The instruction in question stated that:
One of the duties [vessel owners] owe to longshoreman is called “the turnover duty of safe condition.” [The vessel owner] ha[s] the duty to use reasonable care to turn over the vessel and its equipment in such condition that an expert and experienced longshoreman would be able, by the exercise of reasonable care, to carry on his work on the vessel with reasonable safety to persons and property. In exercising such reasonable care, [the vessel owner] ha[s] a duty to take reasonable steps to inspect the vessel and its equipment.
Defendants argued that this instruction was improper because: (1) it was an impermissible expansion of the duty by requiring an owner to inspect the ship and equipment; (2) it asserted that the duty was owed to longshoreman in addition to the stevedoring company and; (3) it impermissibly imposed an ongoing duty to inspect.
The Ninth Circuit noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had already confirmed, in a number of cases, that a vessel owner owes a general duty to longshoreman to turn over the ship and its equipment in a reasonably safe condition. Further, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that a vessel owner also owes a corollary duty to warn a stevedore of latent hazards that are known or should be known to the vessel owner. Whether implicit or explicit, both require the vessel owner to undertake a reasonable inspection. According to the Court, carrying out an inspection is the only feasible way a vessel owner can ensure that both the ship and its equipment are safe enough to be used in cargo operations. Holding otherwise, would allow a vessel owner to take a “’see no evil’ approach.”
However, a vessel owner is not required to inspect every nook and cranny of the ship nor take apart every piece of equipment looking for potential hazards. The inspection is constrained by what is reasonable under the circumstances, and a vessel owner is only responsible for providing a reasonably safe environment for the longshoreman to carry out the work. Accordingly, the Court held the instruction was appropriate with respect to the scope of the vessel owner’s duty.
Under the act, a stevedoring company carries its own duty to provide a reasonably safe workplace for its longshoreman. However, the Court stated that the stevedoring company’s duty to the longshoreman does not obviate the vessel owner’s duty to turnover the ship and equipment in a reasonably safe condition. Further, the Court clarified that while the safe condition aspect of the turnover duty is usually discussed in the context of stevedores, the danger to longshore workers is an essential part of the inquiry. Thus, the Court held that the vessel owner’s turnover duty applies equally to stevedores and longshoremen. Therefore, the instruction appropriately indicated that the duty extends to longshoremen.
Finally, the Court confirmed that the turnover duty is not continuing in nature and ceases at the time of turnover. Thus, the instruction, as drafted, did not exceed the temporal limitations of the duty by charging a continuing post-turnover duty on the part of the vessel owner.