671 F.2d 1276 (11th Cir. 1982), 80-7434, Johnson v. Bryant

Docket Nº:80-7434.
Citation:671 F.2d 1276
Party Name:Samuel F. JOHNSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Norwood BRYANT, an individual, et al., Defendants, Master Norwood Inc., et al., Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:March 01, 1982
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

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671 F.2d 1276 (11th Cir. 1982)

Samuel F. JOHNSON, Plaintiff-Appellant,


Norwood BRYANT, an individual, et al., Defendants,

Master Norwood Inc., et al., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 80-7434.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

March 1, 1982

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Diamond, Lattof, Gardner, Pate & Peters, Ross Diamond, III, Mobile, Ala., for plaintiff-appellant.

G. Hamp Uzzelle, III, J. Hodge Alves, III, Mobile, Ala., for defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.

Before TUTTLE, HENDERSON and HATCHETT, Circuit Judges.

HENDERSON, Circuit Judge:

In this appeal, Samuel F. Johnson challenges a jury verdict for the defendant in his personal injury action for negligence under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688, and unseaworthiness under general maritime law. He assigns as error the district court's denial of his motions for summary judgment, directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict for the reason that the vessel was unseaworthy and its captain negligent as a matter of law. He also contends that the trial judge incorrectly charged the jury. Finding that the court erred in instructing the jury on unseaworthiness, we reverse and remand for a new trial on that count.

The appellant was injured by a falling net while working as a deckhand aboard the M/V MASTER NORWOOD, captained by his son. At the time of the injury, the MASTER NORWOOD was in the Gulf of Mexico in the middle of a month-long fishing voyage. The crew was bringing in the nets aboard the vessel so that she could be taken to sheltered waters in nearby Louisiana to ride out an approaching "norther," which had produced 10 to 12 foot seas, 40 to 50 knot winds, and rain.

The nets were hoisted aboard the vessel by means of a whipline, a rope approximately one and one-quarter inches in diameter. The whipline ran through an overhead block and forward through another block to a "gypsy head" winch, which provided power for lifting the nets. The captain "tailed" the winch, tightening the whipline to raise the nets and slacking it to lower them to the deck. The whipline was first tied to the loaded "sack" of the net, which was lifted out of the water, brought over the stern, and lowered to the deck. The main body or middle of the net was then brought aboard in the same manner.

Earlier in the same voyage the captain had noticed a worn section in the whipline, caused by rubbing on the winch drum. There was no spare whipline, so he cut out the worn section and spliced the line back together. It is undisputed that the splice was good and tight. Because the spliced portion was thicker than the whipline itself, it could not be wrapped around the winch drum, so the ends of the line were switched. The splice thereafter ran through the overhead stern block. During operations prior to the plaintiff's injury, it stuck in the block because of its size, but the weight of the loaded nets usually permitted the splice to pass through without incident. The winch itself operated properly at all times.

The plaintiff's injury occurred as he was assisting in bringing the main body of one of the nets to a landing on the stern deck. The loaded sack had already been decked, and the main body lifted out of the water and brought overhead. The plaintiff's task was to take hold of the net and guide it gently to the deck in order to prevent damage to the rollers and floats. The captain was handling the other end of the whipline and had control of the height of the net. As he lowered the net, the splice caught in the block, as it had on prior occasions. The captain raised the net slightly and then slacked the whipline in an attempt to force the splice through the block. He lost control of the net, which fell upon the plaintiff.

The precise cause of the net's fall is not clear from the evidence. The captain testified that the vessel was rocking in heavy seas and that rain tended to cause the line to slip. Both he and the appellant observed that a turn of the whipline probably jumped off the winch drum, and that he was unable to catch it. The plaintiff says simply that "(w)henever he pulled the line down ... it slipped on him," causing the

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net to fall. He conceded, however, that the captain was not negligent, and that he was manning the winch in "the onliest way you could operate a winch."

The webbing of the net caused a laceration of the appellant's left ear. The injury was treated with bandages and medication available aboard the vessel. The appellant asserts that a staph infection further caused spinal abscess resulting in permanent disability.

The denial of a motion for summary judgment will be reversed only for an abuse of discretion. National Screen Service Corp. v. Poster Exchange, 305 F.2d 647, 651 (5th Cir. 1962); see Marcus v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 651 F.2d 379, 382 (5th Cir. Unit B 1981). The district court did not abuse its discretion here.

The standards for denial of motions for a directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict are the same. Ellis v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 650 F.2d 94, 96-97 (5th Cir. Unit A 1981). Considering all the evidence in the light and with reasonable inferences most favorable to the opposing party,

(i)f the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of one party that the Court believes that reasonable men could not arrive at a contrary verdict, granting of the motions is proper. On the other hand, if there is substantial evidence opposed to the motions, that is, evidence of such quality and weight that reasonable and fair-minded men in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusions, the motions should be denied, and the case submitted to the jury.

Boeing Co. v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365, 374 (5th Cir. 1969) (en banc).

In a Jones Act case, such a motion should be granted only where there is a complete absence of probative fact to support a verdict of negligence for the plaintiff. See Lavender v. Kurn, 327 U.S. 645, 66 S.Ct. 740, 90 L.Ed. 916 (1946). Whether the same rule prevails for a motion by a plaintiff is not clear, see Allen v. Seacoast Products, Inc., 623 F.2d 355, 360 (5th Cir. 1980), but we have applied the Boeing rule without addressing that issue where there is substantial evidence opposing the motion. E.g., Bobb v. Modern Products, Inc., 648 F.2d 1051 (5th Cir. Unit B 1981).

On the facts presented here, there was substantial evidence in opposition to the appellant's motions for a directed verdict and judgment n.o.v. on liability under the Jones Act. The appellant unequivocally admitted that the captain did not negligently handle the whipline. There was independent evidence that the loss of a turn on the winch drum was caused not by negligence, but by the rain and rocking of the vessel.

We similarly conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that the spliced whipline was seaworthy. The question of unseaworthiness is ordinarily one for the jury, Morales v. City of Galveston, 291 F.2d 97 (5th Cir. 1961), aff'd, 370 U.S. 165, 82 S.Ct. 1226, 8 L.Ed.2d 412 (1962), and only in a rare case can a vessel be unseaworthy as a matter of law, Jefferson v. Taiyo Katun, K. K., 310 F.2d 582 (5th Cir. 1962). The appellant contends that the facts of this case establish unseaworthiness as a matter of law, citing Marshall v. Ove Skou Rederi, A/S, 378 F.2d 193 (5th Cir. 1967), and Gibbs v. Kiesel, 382 F.2d 917 (5th Cir. 1967).

The warranty of seaworthiness is, as the appellant contends, an absolute duty, but it does not obligate the owner to furnish an accident-free vessel. Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539, 550, 80 S.Ct. 926, 933, 4 L.Ed.2d 941, 948-49 (1960). The question is one of reasonable fitness for the intended use of the vessel and her appliances. Id., 362 U.S. at 550, 80 S.Ct. at 933, 4 L.Ed.2d at 948-49;...

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