Texas Causes of Action & Affirmative Defenses

Texas Causes of Action & Affirmative Defenses

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jones Act Claim in Texas State Court [cause of action for maritime personal injury to seamen]

The Jones Act provides a cause of action for maritime workers injured by an employer’s negligence. Maritime Overseas Corp. v. Ellis, 971 S.W.2d 402, 405 (Tex. 1998); Diamond Offshore Mgmt. Co. v. Horton, 193 S.W.3d 76, 78 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2006, pet. denied). Federal law provides that a party asserting an admiralty action may bring the action in state court. Ellis, 971 S.W.2d at 405–06; Horton, 193 S.W.3d at 78; see 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) (2000). When a state court hears an admiralty case, that court occupies essentially the same position occupied by a federal court sitting in diversity: the state court must apply substantive federal maritime law but follow state procedure. Ellis, 971 S.W.2d at 406; Horton, 193 S.W.3d at 78.
A fundamental duty of a Jones Act employer is to provide its seamen employees with a reasonably safe place to work. Noble Drilling (US) Inc. v. Fountain, 238 S.W.3d 432, 439 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2007, pet. denied) (citing Colburn v. Bunge Towing, Inc., 883 F.2d 372, 374 (5th Cir. 1989)). The proper standard for determining the duty of care owed by an employer or a seaman is ordinary prudence under the circumstances. Id. (citing Offshore Pipelines, Inc. v. Schooley, 984 S.W.2d 654, 658 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1998, no pet.) (citing Gautreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., 107 F.3d 331, 335, 339 (5th Cir. 1997))). The circumstances of a seaman’s employment include not only his reliance on his employer to provide a safe work environment but also his own experience, training, or education. Id. (citing Gautreaux, 107 F.3d at 339). Thus, the reasonable person standard applies, and the standard in a Jones Act negligence action “becomes one of the reasonable seaman in like circumstances.” Id. (quoting Gautreaux, 107 F.3d at 339).

The Jones Act expressly incorporates the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) and the case law developing that statute, and thus the causation standard under the Jones Act is the same as that under FELA. Ellis, 971 S.W.2d at 406; Horton, 193 S.W.3d at 79. Under FELA, the causation burden is not the common law proximate cause standard; rather, the causation burden is “whether the proof justifies with reason the conclusion that employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury for which the claimant seeks damages.” Ellis, 971 S.W.2d at 406; Horton, 193 S.W.3d at 79; see also Fountain, 238 S.W.3d at 439–40 (“Under the Jones Act, a seaman is entitled to recovery if his employer’s negligence is the cause, in whole or in part, of his injury.”) (citing Gautreaux, 107 F.3d at 335). This burden has been termed “featherweight.” Ellis, 971 S.W.2d at 406; Horton, 193 S.W.3d at 79. Thus, to prove negligence, an employee must prove: (1) personal injury in the course of his employment; (2) negligence by his employer or an officer, agent, or employee; and (3) causation to the extent that his employer’s negligence was the cause “in whole or in part” of his injury. Rigdon Marine Corp. v. Roberts, 270 S.W.3d 220, 226 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2008, pet. denied) (citing Hernandez v. Trawler Miss Vertie Mae, Inc., 187 F.3d 432, 436 (4th Cir. 1999) and Gautreaux, 107 F.3d at 335).

In addition to a less stringent burden of proof, the standard of appellate review in Jones Act cases, as provided under FELA, is also less stringent than under the common law. Ellis, 971 S.W.2d at 406; Horton, 193 S.W.3d at 79. The purpose of the Jones Act standard of review is to vest the fact-finder with complete discretion on factual issues about liability. Ellis, 971 S.W.2d at 406 (citing Rogers v. Mo. Pac. R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 500, 506–07, 77 S. Ct. 443, 448–49 (1957) (discussing standard of review under FELA, which was incorporated into Jones Act)); Horton, 193 S.W.3d at 79. Once the appellate court determines that some evidence about which reasonable minds could differ supports the verdict, the appellate court’s review is complete. Ellis, 971 S.W.2d at 406; Horton, 193 S.W.3d at 79; see also Davis v. Odeco, Inc., 18 F.3d 1237, 1243 (5th Cir. 1994) (holding that some evidence of “causal nexus” between negligence and injury is all that is required to survive appellate review of favorable verdict on Jones Act negligence claim). We apply this less-stringent standard rather than a traditional factual sufficiency review of a finding of liability under the Texas “weight and preponderance” standard. Ellis, 971 S.W.2d at 406; Horton, 193 S.W.3d at 79.