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Operator Liability for Intoxicated Crew

December 19, 2022

Overview

Maritime operators should diligently enact and follow policies and procedures on personal leave and drinking ashore. In a recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, the court refused to dismiss claims against a tugboat operator by estates of two crewmembers killed while operating a skiff, In re Chester J. Marine, LLC, No. 20-214 (M.D. La. Nov. 10, 2022). Despite the crewmembers’ possible intoxication, the court found that the crew’s conduct was not in clear violation of employer policies, and the employer could be held liable, because the employer’s policies against such conduct had not been enforced.

On the evening of February 10, 2020, four crewmembers of an inland push boat, the M/V Melvin King, used the ship’s skiff to go ashore and visit a local bar. While at the bar, at around 6:20 p.m., the crew received a call from another crewmember, who stated that the captain on watch “was looking for them and to come back to [the King].” There was also testimony that the captain on watch called the crew to request they bring him back crawfish from the bar. The crewmembers continued to drink at the bar until they were cut off and “kicked out” by the bartender around 8:00 p.m. The crew then boarded the skiff to return to the King. Before reaching the King, the skiff allegedly collided with another vessel pushing six empty barges. Tragically, two of the crewmembers drowned.

Off-watch Captain Lloyd Standridge was one of the deceased, and his estate filed suit against the ship’s owner and operator, Yazoo River Towing, Inc. (YRT). The plaintiffs alleged YRT was liable for the injuries and death of Captain Standridge because he was “contributing to and aiding in” the mission of the King at the time of the accident. YRT sought to limit its liability under the federal Limitation of Liability Act, which allows a vessel owner to limit liability for damage or injury that occurs without the owner’s knowledge. After filing a limitation of liability action, YRT moved for summary judgment on two grounds: (1) the crewmembers involved in the accident were not acting within the scope of their employment; and (2) the crewmembers’ unlawful operation of the skiff after drinking is a superseding cause that breaks any chain of causation to YRT.

The court first considered whether Captain Standridge and the other crewmembers involved in the accident were acting within the course and scope of their employment such that their employer may be subject to liability. The analysis of the crew’s scope of employment is highly fact-specific, meaning it is examined on a case-by-case basis. At first glance, personal time appears to be outside the scope by definition. Nevertheless, courts have determined that shore leave is a necessary part of seafarer work, helps to ensure work goes smoothly, and thus furthers the business interests of an employer. Consequently, shore leave and personal time may fall within the scope of the crewmember’s employment. When making these determinations, courts consider a number of factors, such as whether leave was authorized or whether the crewmember was answerable to the call of duty. Generally, alcohol-related injuries fall outside the scope of employment, but the intoxication of a crewmember does not necessarily bar employer liability.

In this instance, YRT argued that the crew’s conduct was not within the scope of employment for numerous reasons. According to the court’s opinion, YRT argued that the use of the skiff violated YRT policies, and that personal use of the skiff required authorization from the central office. Unpersuaded, the court found that skiff policies either were not well-known or not enforced. Furthermore, vessel-wide practices ran contrary to YRT policies. Crewmembers understood that the use of the skiff required only the captain’s approval, not the approval of YRT. Because the ship had adopted this practice, there was a question of fact as to whether the crew had adequate authorization. Furthermore, there was evidence that the acting captain was aware of the crew’s activities, and even instructed them to bring him food from the bar. Therefore, the court found there was a question of fact as to whether the crew was returning under direct orders at the time of the accident.

Next, the court declined to rule that the crew’s alcohol consumption violated company policy because there was evidence of a pervasive culture of drinking and drug use aboard the King. The court cited evidence that crewmembers regularly purchased alcohol to bring back to the ship and used marijuana and cocaine onboard. Accordingly, the court found that there were questions as to whether the crewmembers—despite their drinking—acted within the scope of their employment at the time of the accident. So, the court found that there were issues of fact as to whether the crew even violated YRT policies.

Finally, the court considered whether the crew’s drinking was a superseding cause of the accident. The court ruled there were questions of fact as to whether YRT should have realized the skiff occupants might have acted in the manner they did, given the historical practices on the ship. Therefore, YRT’s motion was denied on both grounds and resolution of this case has not been reported.

Unfortunately, this case is not unique. Still, it sheds light on the dangers of bad practices and the value of trustworthy onboard leadership. Employers should consider taking steps to ensure that employees are well-trained on company policies and onboard leadership enforces policies consistently. Every case is different, but here are a few best practices related to crew policies:

  • Review policies on alcohol and drug use to determine whether updates are required. Are policies for shore-leave conduct clearly defined?
  • Place and follow clear restrictions and guidelines on the use of company property for personal time.
  • Clearly define requirements of crewmembers while on and off duty.
  • Offer training courses on a regular basis to refresh employees on company policies.
  • Ensure that employees understand chain of command for approval of personal use of equipment.
  • Promulgate and follow drug testing policies.

Employers and crewmembers vary. Vessels vary. Each situation requires careful consideration. This case is a stark reminder of the need for all employers to pay attention to policies regarding drugs, alcohol, and shore leave.

This article summarizes aspects of the law and does not constitute legal advice. For legal advice for your situation, you should contact an attorney.

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