Miller v. Rowan Companies, Inc.

Decision Date01 May 1987
Docket NumberNo. 86-3129,86-3129
Citation815 F.2d 1021
PartiesCharles MILLER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ROWAN COMPANIES, INC. and Tri-State Oil Tool Industries, Inc., Defendants- Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Camilo K. Salas, III, Robert E. Winn, Sessions, Fishman, Rosenson, Boisfontaine & Nathan, New Orleans, La., Maurice Dantin, Dantin & Dantin, Columbia, Miss., for plaintiff-appellant.

Edward S. Johnson, Ronald A. Johnson, Johnson & McAlpine, New Orleans, La., for Rowan Companies, Inc.

William G. Tabb, III, New Orleans, La., for Tri-State Oil Tool Industries, Inc.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Before CLARK, Chief Judge, WISDOM and HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judges.

WISDOM, Circuit Judge:

This appeal presents another variation of the riddle long familiar to this Court: When is an oil field worker, in this case a fishing tool supervisor, a seaman for purposes of the Jones Act? 1 Charles Miller, the fishing tool supervisor, was injured aboard a tender vessel tethered to an offshore platform. He brought a Jones Act claim against his employer, Tri-State Oil Tool Industries. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of Miller, the district court held that Miller was not a seaman and granted Tri-State's motion for a judgment non obstante veredicto and, alternatively, a new trial. Miller appeals the judgment n.o.v. on two grounds. First, the evidence was sufficient to support a jury finding of seaman status. Second, the district court erred in entering a judgment n.o.v. because Tri-State failed to move for a directed verdict at the close of all the evidence. Additionally, Miller appeals that portion of the judgment which awarded Tri-State reimbursement for compensation payments it had paid to Miller. We affirm the judgment on seaman status and vacate the judgment on reimbursement.

I.

Charles Miller is a fishing tool supervisor for Tri-State Oil Tool Industries, an oilfield service company. His job is to retrieve drilling tools and broken pipe from the well hole, a job in the oil industry known as "fishing". Drilling contractors in need of fishing services subcontract with Tri-State. During the course of his employment with Tri-State, Miller was assigned to numerous drilling operations, both offshore and onshore.

In December of 1981, Tri-State assigned Miller to a drilling operation conducted by Rowan Industries on a fixed offshore platform. Rowan also operated the ROWAN TENDER III, the tender vessel assigned to the platform. The vessel served as an office, a galley, and a bunkhouse for the drilling crew and remained tethered to the platform. Miller ate and slept aboard the vessel. Although he worked primarily on the platform, he did do some incidental paper work and tool preparation on the vessel. On December 15, 1981, Miller was injured by a fall as he attempted to enter the vessel's quarters through a water-tight door.

Miller brought this suit against Tri-State and Rowan Industries to recover his damages. He asserted a claim against Tri-State under the Jones Act and a claim against Rowan for negligence and unseaworthiness under general maritime law. The suit was tried to a jury. After Miller presented his case-in-chief, both Tri-State and Rowan moved for directed verdicts on the issue of Miller's status as a seaman for purposes of his Jones Act and unseaworthiness claims. The trial judge took the motions under submission and ordered the trial to continue. Rowan presented three witnesses and then rested. Tri-State rested without presenting any evidence. A bench conference ensued at which Miller moved for a directed verdict on all issues and Rowan's counsel reurged its earlier motion for a directed verdict. The trial transcript does not indicate that Tri-State's counsel also renewed its motion for a directed verdict. The trial judge orally denied all motions for directed verdicts and submitted the case to the jury. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Miller on all his claims. The court entered judgment on the verdict and on the parties' stipulation that Miller was liable, in turn, for reimbursement of insurance payments.

On post-verdict motions, the trial judge granted Tri-State's motion for a judgment n.o.v., holding that the evidence did not support a jury finding that Miller was a seaman. The trial judge also granted Rowan a new trial. The trial judge denied, however, Miller's motions seeking prejudgment interest and modification of the judgment against him for reimbursement. Miller appealed. Before this appeal was argued, Miller and Rowan settled; we need decide, therefore, only the claims between Miller and Tri-State. Also, because we affirm the judgment n.o.v. in favor of Tri-State, we need not reach Miller's appeal from the denial of his motion for prejudgment interest.

II.

Miller argues that the district court could not enter a judgment n.o.v. in favor of Tri-State because Tri-State failed to renew its motion for a directed verdict at the close of all the evidence. Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a judgment n.o.v. may be granted "[w]henever a motion for a directed verdict made at the close of all the evidence is denied or for any reason not granted." As we have interpreted this rule, a party who fails to renew his motion for a directed verdict at the close of all the evidence, absent special circumstances, waives his right to a judgment n.o.v. 2 Although the correct practice would have been for Tri-State to have renewed its motion after all the parties had rested their cases, its failure to do so, in the circumstances of this case, does not preclude it from seeking a judgment n.o.v.

Arguably, Tri-State did comply with the strict terms of Rule 50(b). After it moved for a directed verdict on the issue of seaman status, Tri-State rested without presenting any evidence. Tri-State's motion followed, therefore, the close of all the evidence concerning Miller's claim against Tri-State. The problem arose because Rowan later presented witnesses who testified concerning the negligence and unseaworthiness claims against it. Whether Rule 50(b) requires that a judgment n.o.v. be preceded by a directed verdict motion made at the close of all evidence concerning the claim against the moving party or at the close of all evidence presented by all the parties to the litigation is a question that the rule does not specifically answer. 3

Even if Tri-State failed to comply with the strict terms of the rule, this case is one in which the liberal application of the rule is appropriate. 4 Whether technical noncompliance with Rule 50(b) precludes a judgment n.o.v. "should be examined in the light of the accomplishment of its particular purposes as well as in the general context of securing a fair trial for all concerned in the quest for truth." 5 One purpose of Rule 50(b) is to ensure that the trial court is invited to reexamine only the question raised by the motion for a direct verdict--whether the evidence is sufficient as a matter of law--and not to reexamine the facts properly found by the jury. 6 If the court and counsel are adequately informed of the defendant's challenge, this purpose is served. 7 When Tri-State made its original motion, the trial court reserved its ruling until after the trial was completed. After Rowan presented its witnesses, it reurged its earlier motion on the issue of seaman status, which also had been taken under submission. When Tri-State raised its post-verdict motions, neither the trial judge nor Miller raised any objection to Tri-State's failure to renew its motion formally. Because the court and the parties apparently had considered the issue open throughout the litigation, renewal of Tri-State's motion would have furthered no purpose. 8

Another aim of the rule is to avoid making a trap of the judgment n.o.v. when the defendant's nonrenewal is designed to avoid pointing out the defects in the plaintiff's proof, especially defects exposed by the defendant's case-in-chief, which the plaintiff might cure before the case is submitted to the jury. 9 There was no possibility of a trap in this case because the trial court's grant of a judgment n.o.v. did not hinge in any way on evidence introduced after Tri-State made its original motion. 10 Tri-State introduced no evidence. Rowan did present three witnesses, but none of them testified to any facts concerning Miller's status as a seaman. We follow the approach adopted in several previous cases: when the trial court reserves its ruling on the defendant's motion for a directed verdict and the only evidence introduced after the motion is not related to the motion, the defendant's failure to renew his motion should not preclude a judgment n.o.v. in his favor. 11

III

The district court's decision is proper only if "there is no reasonable evidentiary basis to support a jury finding that the injured person is a seaman ... under the Jones Act." 12 For almost thirty years, this Circuit has followed the test for seaman status articulated in Offshore Co. v. Robison [T]here is an evidentiary basis for a Jones Act case to go to the jury: (1) if there is evidence that the injured workman was assigned permanently to a vessel (including special purpose structures not usually employed as a means of transport by water but designed to float on water) or performed a substantial part of his work on the vessel; and (2) if the capacity in which he was employed or the duties which he performed contributed to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission, or to the operation or welfare of the vessel in terms of its maintenance during its movement or during anchorage for its future trips. 13

Recently, this Court reaffirmed the continuing viability of the Robison test, with some qualifications, in its en banc decision in Barrett v. Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. 14

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