The U.S. Fifth Circuit, the federal appellate court for district courts in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, has historically been a leader in shaping maritime law.

In December it issued an important decision that addressed contributory negligence in a Jones Act personal injury suit. The case of Knight v. Kirby Offshore Marine Pacific involved a claim by a tankerman who suffered an ankle injury after stepping on a stern line that caused him to lose his balance and fall. The plaintiff, Andrew Lee Knight, had been instructed by his captain to swap out the stern line when the vessel was at sea. He claimed that the four-foot seas and heavy winds, which caused the vessel to roll, were unsafe conditions for the work he was instructed to perform and that it was negligent for the captain to order him to change out the line on the vessel’s stern deck under such conditions.

Knight’s case went to trial, and the Louisiana district court found that both he and his employer were equally negligent for the accident and injury. Consequently, the court reduced Knight’s monetary damage award by 50% to account for his own fault. Knight appealed the ruling to the Fifth Circuit.

Knight’s primary argument on appeal was that he could not be held negligent for an accident that occurred when he was carrying out the orders of his supervisor. Notably, the federal Ninth Circuit, which handles appeals on the West Coast, developed law that bars seaman’s contributory negligence for any accident resulting from the performance of duties as ordered by the captain. This strict bar to contributory negligence of a seaman is not shared by most other federal district and appellate courts.

Based upon the approach of most courts, the Fifth Circuit concluded that a seaman cannot be found negligent when he is performing a particular order from a supervisor in a manner that the supervisor specifically dictates. However, a seaman can be contributorily negligent when he has an accident or injury while simply carrying out a general order from his captain and when he has discretion in how the order is to be carried out.

In the Knight case, the seaman was simply told to swap out the stern line, without any specific instructions on how it had to be done. The court found that based on Knight’s placement of the discarded line on the stern deck and the fact that he stepped on it while laying the new line, were actions done at his own direction and contributed to his accident. He was, therefore, found to be partially at fault, which resulted in a reduction of his recovery against Kirby.

Daniel J. Hoerner is a maritime attorney with Mouledoux, Bland, Legrand & Brackett LLC. Contact him at 504-595-3000 or [email protected].