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Sea captain awarded $11M in future earnings after tripping injury

Corpus Christi

A sea captain is entitled to more than $11 million in lost future earnings after he was injured tripping over a stair in a hatch door.

In Rivera v. Kirby Offshore Marine LLC, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans unanimously affirmed a district court’s ruling that the captain was not an employee for workers compensation purposes and that the company was therefore liable for his injuries.

Capt. Jay Rivera worked as a state-commissioned branch pilot assisting vessels in navigating the Port Corpus Christi Ship Channel and the LaQuinta Channel in Texas, and was a member of an unincorporated pilots association.

In August 2016, he was dispatched to pilot a 120-foot vessel owned and operated by Kirby Offshore Marine. After boarding the vessel, he was being escorted to the wheelhouse when he stepped into a hatch access door that was not well illuminated, rolled his ankle and fell, according to court documents. He received ice and ibuprofen, piloted the boat to its destination, and afterward sought medical attention.

Capt. Rivera was diagnosed with a metatarsal fracture of the left foot. He was later diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome that rendered him medically unfit for his mariner certification, and his state harbor commission was revoked.

Capt. Rivera sued Kirby for negligence and vessel unseaworthiness. The district court determined he was not an employee of Kirby and that his injuries were not compensable under the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA). It also found that the boat was unseaworthy and that Capt. Rivera was entitled to past and future harbor pilot wages. After relying on calculations from an expert, the court awarded him $11.7 million in damages.

On appeal, Kirby argued that Capt. Rivera was an employee covered by the LHWCA and was contributorily negligent, but the appellate court disagreed.

The court concluded that the district court did not err in finding that Capt. Rivera was not “the employee of anyone” and therefore not covered by the LHWCA.

The court also affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the boat was unseaworthy, finding that Capt. Rivera sufficiently demonstrated that his injuries were caused by his fall over an unmarked hatch door, noting that other courts have held that tripping hazards can render a vessel unseaworthy.

Kirby argued that Capt. Rivera’s decision to wear sunglasses made him contributorily negligent in his fall, but the appellate court again dismissed this argument, agreeing with the district court’s determination that wearing sunglasses on a sunny day was not unreasonable and that Kirby failed to show that Capt. Rivera would have seen the hatch and avoided injury if he had not been wearing sunglasses.