266 F.2d 769 (5th Cir. 1959), 17445, Offshore Co. v. Robison

Docket Nº:17445.
Citation:266 F.2d 769
Party Name:OFFSHORE COMPANY and The Fidelity & Casualty Company of New York, Appellants-Appellees, v. Johnie M. ROBISON, Appellee-Appellant. ROBISON v. OFFSHORE COMPANY and The Fidelity & Casualty Company of New York.
Case Date:April 30, 1959
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

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266 F.2d 769 (5th Cir. 1959)

OFFSHORE COMPANY and The Fidelity & Casualty Company of New York, Appellants-Appellees,


Johnie M. ROBISON, Appellee-Appellant.



OFFSHORE COMPANY and The Fidelity & Casualty Company of New York.

No. 17445.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

April 30, 1959

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Donald v. Organ, New Orleans, La., Seale, Kelton & Hayes, Baton Rouge, La., of counsel, for appellee-appellant.

Maurice J. Wilson and Breazeale, Sachse, Wilson & Hebert, Baton Rouge, La., for appellants-appellees.

Before RIVES, CAMERON and WISDOM, Circuit Judges.

WISDOM, Circuit Judge.

This case propounds a riddle: When is a roughneck a seaman? The complainant offers the solution: under the Jones Act-- when the roughneck is injured while working as a member of a drilling crew on a mobile drilling platform towed to a well located in navigable waters. Respondents have no patience with conundrums: an oil worker on a rig firmly planted on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico is not a seaman, not on a vessel, and not entitled to the benefits of the Jones Act. When the facts are clear, as in this case, so respondents contend, litigants should not be exposed to the risk of a capricious jury finding that an ordinary oil worker is a Jones Act seaman simply because he is employed on an offshore drilling barge in a capacity that contributes to the accomplishment of the barge's mission.

The Jones Act gives a 'seaman' (not defined) the right to sue in an action at law for damages arising from the negligence of the owner or personnel of a 'vessel' aboard which the seaman is employed. 1 The reach of the Jones Act is a peril of the sea that could hardly have been dreamt of by the landlubbers in the oil business. The Act has always been construed liberally, but recent decisions have expanded the coverage of the Jones Act to include almost any workman sustaining almost any injury while employed on almost any structure that once floated or is capable of floating on navigable waters. 2 Our decision on this appeal turns on an examination of these cases and the applicability of their rationale to the facts before us.


Johnie Robison was an oil field worker. The complaint alleges that in August, 1956, Offshore Company hired him as a member of the crew of the vessel 'Offshore No. 55'. Offshore Company says that he was hired as a roustabout at $1.96 an hour. A roustabout is a general handyman in the oil fields, subject to any handyman in the oil fields, subject to any At the time of the accident resulting in this litigation Robison was working as a roughneck. A roughneck is a driller's helper, a laborer in a drilling crew who does the hard general work in the rigging and drilling of a well. Robison had never worked as a seaman on board a vessel, as the terms 'seaman' and 'vessel' are ordinarily understood. He had never carried seaman's papers, and none of the oil crew carried seaman's papers as a condition of employment.

Offshore Company is in the business of drilling and exploring for oil and gas, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. It owns and operates a drilling rig identified as 'Offshore No. 55'. This is a rig mounted on what Offshore calls a mobile drilling platform and what Robison calls

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a barge. At the time of the accident it was resting firmly on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, about three miles from the Texas coast. It is 200 feet long, 104 feet wide, and 15 feet deep. It was built by the American Bridge Shipyards. Offshore No. 55 has a raked bow and carries navigation lights, bitts, anchors, bilge pumps, and cranes. It has only a top deck and a lower hull. The hull could not be used for cargo; the barge is strictly a drilling platform. It has no engines, and is moved by tugs from one well location in the Gulf to another. It has living quarters for the crew and a galley in a two story house on top of the deck. Six life rafts are carried, each capable of holding ten men. Regular abandon-ship drills were held aboard Offshore No. 55. Its lifesaving gear was approved by the Coast Guard.

Retractable legs are the distinctive feature of Offshore No. 55. These are eight legs or towers, caissons, twelve feet in diameter, running through the hull, two located on each of the four corners of the barge. When the drilling barge is in position the legs are dropped down to the ocean floor, then hydraulic jacks lift the barge above the water level so that the main deck of the barge may serve as a drilling platform. When the drilling barge is in a floating position, the spuds are recessed so that the barge will have a flat bottom.

The men employed on Offshore No. 55 work ten days on and five days off. The crew remains aboard the vessel when it is moved to well locations. While the vessel is moving, roustabouts and roughnecks prepare the machinery for a new location, secure the pipe and other material on deck, chip rust, paint, wash down decks, catch lines from vessels coming alongside, operate bilge pumps, load and unload supplies.

On the night of the accident, Robison was working on the main deck of the barge. Other workmen were running casing on the drilling floor, twelve feet above the main deck. When casing was needed, it was rolled onto a catwalk, extending from the main deck to the drilling floor in a slanted position, and was pulled up to the drilling floor with the use of an air hoist line through V-doors in the side of the derrick. Robison's job was to crease the threaded ends of the drill casing and to hook the air hoist line onto the sections to be hoisted into the derrick on the drilling floor. Usually chain stoppers are placed across the catwalk to stop the pipe from sliding back down to the main deck. Usually, too, an oil line from the top of the derrick is secured to the casing after the air hoist line pulls it through the V-doors at which time the air hoist line is released and the oil line carries the casing up into the derrick itself.

At the time of the accident there was no chain stopper and the oil line was being used in another operation. One of the sections of casing was hoisted into the V-doors. A casing crew man took off the air hoist line leaving the casing unsecured. Forty feet of pipe, weighing 1620 pounds, slid, skidded, and catapulted down through the V-doors to the catwalk toward Robison. In attempting to escape, Robison caught his foot between a section of drill pipe and a beam. The casing struck the pipe, severely fracturing Robison's leg.

Robison sued the Offshore Company and its liability insurer, Fidelity and Casualty Company of New York on the theory that Robison was a seaman and a member of the crew of the vessel 'Offshore No. 55'; as such, respondent owed him the duty to provide a safe and seaworthy vessel, under the Jones Act and the general maritime law. Robison alleged that the accident was caused by unsafe working conditions, unsafe lighting, defective equipment, the absence of a proper chain stopper, and the negligent management of the equipment. In addition to damages for his injury, he claimed maintenance and cure at eight dollars a day for the period of his disability. Respondents denied that Robison was a seaman and that Offshore No. 55 was a vessel: he was a member of a drilling crew who did nothing to assist in the navigation, maintenance or operation

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of Offshore No. 55; there is no such thing as a 'crew of the vessel' in connection with Offshore No. 55, as that phrase is ordinarily known and related to a vessel in navigation. The respondents alleged that Robison was guilty of contributory negligence. Respondents pleaded that they had paid Robison $54 a week during his disability and that all expenses for medical care had been paid.

The plaintiff filed an amended complaint seeking to join as a party defendant the Oil City Casing Crews Company and alleged that this company had at the time of the accident a casing crew on the floor of the Offshore No. 55 whose negligence contributed to the accident. Oil City Casing Crews was not actually before the court.

The case was heard before a jury as an action under the Jones Act and the general maritime law. At the conclusion of the evidence, respondents moved for a directed verdict. 3 The motion was denied. The case was submitted to the jury on special interrogatories. 4 Judgment was entered for the plaintiff for $2250, consisting of the $3000 damages found by the jury less 25% for the complainant's contributory negligence. The motion for judgment for maintenance was allowed to the extent of 116 days at $8 a day ($919) subject to a previous payment of $878.10. The Court denied defendants' motion for a judgment NOV. Defendants appealed from the final judgment of the lower court. The plaintiff appealed from the order denying a motion for a new trial on quantum only.


There are two aspects to the question at issue: (1) What is required in law to constitute a maritime worker a seaman and a member of a crew? (2) In the circumstances of this case, is the question one for the court or for the jury? 5

The Jones Act was adopted in 1920. It applies in terms to 'any seaman who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment.' It has

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always been interpreted broadly. Thus, in 1926, Mr. Justice Holmes, for the Supreme Court, held that a stevedore was a seaman under the Jones Act. 'Words are flexible', the work of a stevedore is 'a maritime service formerly rendered by the ship's crew', and Congress wanted to protect men engaged in the same maritime duties whether employed by a stevedore or a ship. International Stevedoring Co. v. Haverty, 1926, 272 U.S. 50, 47 S.Ct. 19, 71 L.Ed. 157.

In 1927, partly as a result of Haverty, Congress adopted the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 44 Stat. 1424, 33 U.S.C.A. § 901 et seq., covering all maritime workers except...

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