King v. Huntress, Inc.

Decision Date02 July 2014
Docket NumberNos. 2011–341–Appeal, 2012–202–Appeal, 2012–203–Appeal.,s. 2011–341–Appeal, 2012–202–Appeal, 2012–203–Appeal.
Citation94 A.3d 467
CourtRhode Island Supreme Court
PartiesJody KING v. HUNTRESS, INC.

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Merlyn P. O'Keefe, Esq., Wakefield, for Plaintiff.

Martin K. DeMagistris, Esq., Warwick, for Defendant.

Present: SUTTELL, C.J., GOLDBERG, FLAHERTY, ROBINSON, and INDEGLIA, JJ.

OPINION

Justice ROBINSON, for the Court.

This case is a federal maritime action 1 in which Jody King, the plaintiff, raised claims for maintenance and cure; negligence under the federal Jones Act, as codified in 46 U.S.C. § 30104; and “breach of the warranty of seaworthiness.” 2 On June 1, 2011, after a trial in Washington County Superior Court in which plaintiff prevailed on his claim for maintenance and cure, but not on his claims for negligence and breach of the warranty of seaworthiness, the trial justice denied the motion for a new trial filed by the defendant, Huntress, Inc., with respect to the claim for maintenance and cure and granted the motion for a new trial filed by the plaintiff with respect to the claims for negligence and breach of the warranty of seaworthiness. The defendant appeals that decision,3 contending that the trial justice erred in: (1) denying the defendant's motion for a new trial on the claim of maintenance and cure because the trial justice, sua sponte, gave what the defendant considers to be an improper instruction to the jury with respect to “unearned wages;” (2) granting the plaintiff a new trial on the issues of negligence under the Jones Act and breach of the warranty of seaworthiness because, in the defendant's view, the trial justice “overlooked” and “misconstrued” testimony, resulting in a decision which was “clearly wrong;” and (3) applying Rhode Island's prejudgment interest statute, as codified in G.L.1956 § 9–21–10, as opposed to the principles of general federal maritime law pertaining to prejudgment interest.

For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate the trial justice's denial of defendant's motion for a new trial with respect to the claim for maintenance and cure. We likewise vacate the trial justice's grant of plaintiff's motion for a new trial on the claims of negligence under the Jones Act and breach of the warranty of seaworthiness. Additionally, we conclude that the trial justice's reliance upon Rhode Island's prejudgment interest statute was in error.

IFacts and Travel

On May 29, 2008, plaintiff filed a complaint in Washington County Superior Court, against defendant; the allegations in the complaint related to the injuries sustained by plaintiff in an accident which took place on May 31, 2006 on board a commercial fishing vessel owned by the defendant corporation. The complaint contained a claim for maintenance and cure 4 (Count One); a claim for negligence under the federal Jones Act (Count Two); and a claim for breach of the “warranty of seaworthiness” (Count Three). In due course a trial was held over seven days in November of 2010.5 We summarize below the salient aspects of what transpired at that trial.

AThe Testimony at TrialThe Plaintiff's Witnesses
i. The Testimony of Plaintiff 6

The plaintiff testified at trial that he worked as a [d]eckhand” on a commercial fishing vessel named Persistence; he added that he received payment for his first “fishing trip” on the Persistence on March 12, 2005 and on several subsequent trips until his last trip on April 3, 2006. It was his testimony that during that time period he went on multiple fishing trips and earned approximately $54,000. When asked how he “would * * * know who was going on * * * the next trip,” it was Mr. King's testimony that he would do “boat duty to follow the trip that [he] just finished and Kyle [Goodwin] 7 would make the list out and determine who was going on that trip and who was going to stay on shore.”

According to Mr. King's testimony, on May 31, 2006, he arrived at the Persistence for “boat duty” (because the vessel was in between fishing trips), and he was assigned painting duty. He stated that he was assigned to paint the “coaming,” 8 which was located “in between the second and third floor hatch;” Mr. King further explained that the coaming was on the ceiling of the “fish hold deck” and on the floor of the room above (the “packing room”). It was his testimony that he placed a “stepladder” on the “cement floor of the fish hold;” he added that he “didn't believe [the stepladder] was on a slant.” He indicated in this testimony that, as he reached the second rung of the stepladder, it “seemed to come out from underneath [him] and [he] fell” to his left. When asked if he knew why the stepladder came out from underneath him, he responded: “No. I do not.” It was also his testimony that, after he fell, but on the same day as the fall, he noticed that the stepladder had “two deep gouges or cuts” on the “bottom rung.”

Mr. King testified that after the fall he experienced pain in his left arm from his “wrist all the way to [his] shoulder,” but he said that he “attempted to continue to finish [his work that] day.” He added that he had never seen a stepladder “lashed” or “blocked” on the Persistence and that he had never observed a “spotter” being employed. According to his testimony, he was ultimately diagnosed with a “large rotator cuff tear” in his left shoulder. He further testified that he underwent two surgeries on his left shoulder to repair the rotator cuff. When asked at trial about his expenses, his testimony indicated that the cost of his mortgage and utilities was approximately $37 per day, while his expenses for food were approximately $15 per day. He acknowledged that defendant had made payments to him for “maintenance” and had also paid him what he characterized as an “advance,” but he added that those payments stopped in February of 2008. The plaintiff contends that the maintenance payments should not have been halted because, as Dr. Gary Perlmutter testified at his deposition, plaintiff did not reach his “maximum medical end result” until March 9, 2010.9 Albert Sabella, a “vocational rehabilitation counselor,” testifiedat trial that, due to the injury to plaintiff's left arm, he would not be able to return to work as an offshore fisherman; he stated that the duties of a fisherman were “beyond [plaintiff's] physical ability for lifting, using manual motor coordination, [and] dexterity.”

On cross-examination, plaintiff testified that, after he positioned the stepladder on the day of the accident, it was “as level as it could possibly be,” but he acknowledged that the floor of the fish hold was “pretty rutted” and had a “tiny * * * bow.” He further testified that, if one of the other individuals working on the Persistence that day saw something wrong with the placement of his stepladder, that person “should have said something” to him.

ii. The Testimony of Christopher Weisensee

Christopher Weisensee testified that he was a [d]eckhand” working on the Persistence on the day that plaintiff fell. He further stated that the vessel was tied up at the dock on that day; and, when he was then asked if the vessel moved back and forth when tied to the dock, he responded: “Not noticeably usually.” It was Mr. Weisensee's testimony that the captain made the decision as to who would go on each fishing trip; he stated that the captain “picks who he feels deserves to go.” It was his further testimony that the composition of the crew was not the same from trip to trip.

Mr. Weisensee testified that he was working with plaintiff in the fish hold on the day of plaintiff's fall. He stated that he was about twenty feet away from plaintiff and that he saw him place the stepladder on a “slant” because the fish hold was not “completely straight in all areas.” At trial, he claimed that he had not seen plaintiff climb the stepladder or fall from it; he explained that, although he had said in his deposition that plaintiff was on the second step of the stepladder when he fell, he had merely “assumed” that plaintiff was on the second step “based on how much time it took at the time.” During cross-examination, he clarified the latter statement by testifying that “two or three” seconds elapsed between the moment when he “glanced” over and saw plaintiff setting up his stepladder and the eventual fall. According to Mr. Weisensee's testimony, plaintiff fell to his left.

Mr. Weisensee also stated that setting up the stepladder on a slant was “not smart.” However, he explained that he did not say anything to plaintiff about the slanted stepladder—not because he did not “care,” but rather because he did not know that plaintiff was going to “climb up and hurt himself.” He then acknowledged that in his deposition he had stated:

We're in harm's way all the time. Somebody's doing something stupid, they're just being stupid. I don't really care. It's not my problem. Go hurt yourself. I don't care. It's not my problem.”

On cross-examination at trial, Mr. Weisensee testified that, when he saw plaintiff setting up the stepladder on a slant, he thought that plaintiff would use his own judgment and not climb a slanted stepladder.

iii. The Testimony of David Reposa

David Reposa testified that he was working on the Persistence as a “deckhand” on the day in question; he added that the vessel was [t]ied to the dock.” According to his testimony, Mr. Reposa was above plaintiff on the “mid-deck,” about fifteen to twenty feet away from plaintiff at the time of the fall. His testimony indicated that he could see Mr. King through an open central hatch. He testified that he was painting, and he added that there was “sufficient ventilation” so that there were not any “dangerous vapors.” He further stated that the paint was not making his eyes “red and glossy.” However, plaintiff's counsel confronted him with his deposition testimony, in which he had stated that the paint vapors were “kind of” making his eyes red and glossy. It was further his testimony that, when plaintiff fell, he was carrying “his...

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