An important decision affecting vicarious liability for Jones Act employers for the acts of their employees was issued August 14, 2012 by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The decision, an action against Hercules Drilling Company represented by LeBlanc Bland, P.L.L.C. with offices in New Orleans and Houston, reverses the Eastern District of Louisiana’s earlier ruling, has significant implications for employers in the maritime industry, confirming the test for course and scope of employment for Jones Act employees.
The decision results from a tragic case (Amanda Beech v. Hercules Drilling Company, LLC., No. 11-30415) in which an employee of Hercules Drilling Company, in violation of company policy, unintentionally brought a firearm to his job aboard a jack-up drilling rig. In the midst of showing the gun to a co-worker, the gun accidentally discharged, mortally wounding the other employee.
The plaintiffs sued Hercules Drilling Company, and the Eastern District of Louisiana determined that the employee was acting in the course of his employment and found in favor of the plaintiffs. The Fifth Circuit ruling reverses that decision and establishes that Jones Act employers will not be held responsible for all acts of employees simply because they occur on a vessel during work hours. The Fifth Circuit held that because the employee’s actions with the loaded weapon did not further his employer’s business interests, Hercules was not liable for the employee’s actions or his negligence. The decision of the Court stated, “...the test for whether a Jones Act employee was acting within the course and scope of his employment is whether his actions at the time of the injury were in furtherance of his employer’s
business interests.” The Fifth Circuit explained that the Jones Act does not create a strict liability scheme whereby the employer is liable for all actions of its employees which occur aboard the vessel. The Court found that the employee “was not acting within the course and scope of his employment” when he accidentally shot the victim.
This will be an important decision for the employers of Jones Act seamen in the future. This case removes any doubt as to the test for course and scope in Jones Act cases in the Fifth Circuit. If the employee’s actions are contrary to the employer’s business interests, unforeseeable and far removed from the employee’s role as an employee, they will be deemed outside the course and scope of employment.