Pure Oil Company v. Snipes

Decision Date30 June 1961
Docket NumberNo. 18718.,18718.
Citation293 F.2d 60
PartiesPURE OIL COMPANY, Appellant, v. Tracy L. SNIPES, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit


William A. Brinkhaus, Edward Dubuisson, Dubuisson & Dubuisson, Opelousas, La., for defendant-appellant.

Nolan J. Edwards, Crowley, La., Gerald A. Stewart, Herbert W. Christenberry, Jr., Stewart & Mestayer, New Orleans, La., Edwards & Edwards, Crowley, La., for plaintiff-appellee.

Before JONES and BROWN, Circuit Judges, and DE VANE, District Judge.

JOHN R. BROWN, Circuit Judge.

At the heart of this appeal1 is the question whether under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, 43 U.S.C.A. §§ 1331-1343, the applicable substantive law for an injury received in connection with a fixed off-shore platform is that of Louisiana, the adjacent state, or the general maritime law. What makes an answer decisive is the problem of timeliness of the suit. For if the occurrence is governed by Louisiana law, it is conceded that a suit filed 22 months after the injury of November 6, 1956, is prescribed by the Louisiana one-year statute. LSA-C.C. Art. 3536. If it is maritime, then the equitable doctrine of laches controls.

The injury occurred on a fixed drilling platform owned and controlled by The Pure Oil Company. It rested permanently on vertical upright members securely affixed to the ocean floor. It was not, therefore, the floating-submersible type dealt with in Offshore Co. v. Robison, 5 Cir., 1959, 266 F.2d 769, 1959 AMC 2049. The platform was located in the Gulf of Mexico about 65 miles off the coast of Louisiana. This location was substantially seaward of Louisiana's historic extended maritime boundary recognized in the Submerged Lands Act, 43 U.S.C.A. §§ 1301-1315. Whether measured in terms of Louisiana's claim or the boundary finally delineated in United States v. States of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, 1960, 363 U.S. 1, 121, at page 66, 80 S.Ct. 961, 4 L.Ed.2d 1025, 1096, this platform was in the area defined in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. As all must be judged finally by this Act, it is important at the outset to emphasize the comprehensive, unqualified, unlimited claim of Federal sovereignty asserted and accomplished by that statute.

The Act first provides that "It is declared to be the policy of the United States that the subsoil and seabed of the outer Continental Shelf appertain to the United States and are subject to its jurisdiction, control, and power of disposition as provided in this subchapter." § 1332(a). In a sweeping way it then provides that "The Constitution and laws and civil and political jurisdiction of the United States are extended to the subsoil and seabed of the outer Continental Shelf and to all artificial islands and fixed structures which may be erected thereon * * * to the same extent as if the outer Continental Shelf were an area of exclusive Federal jurisdiction located within a State. * * *" § 1333(a) (1).

The decision of what law controls is therefore a problem in statutory interpretation of a congressional enactment. Guess v. Read, 5 Cir., 1961, 290 F.2d 622.2 It is in no sense one of those cases of undulating conflicts of state versus national power inevitable and irrepressible in our unique federalism.

The plaintiff Snipes was not working for Pure. He was an employee of Loffland Brothers Drilling Company. By two separate but identical formal, written agreements with Pure, Loffland had undertaken to drill two wells from the platform. Loffland was described as, and was, an independent contractor. The claim of Snipes against Pure was therefore the now familiar suit against a third party. Success by Snipes depended upon establishing some independent negligence on the part of Pure. Under the contract Loffland was to supply the drilling rig and its normal incidental equipment. Pure was to supply, among other things, the derrick, the platform and "* * * all necessary casing, tubing * * * valves, fittings flow line connections, * * * and all mud treating compound * * * also * * * fuel and water * * *." (Emphasis added.)

The occurrence of this accident may be briefly described. The platform deck is about 50 feet above the water. Since the first of the two projected wells had been completed, it was necessary to skid the drilling rig from one position on the platform to another one on the same platform in order to commence drilling the second well. This was to be done by a series of blocks and jacks. Before the rig was to be skidded it was necessary to dismantle a pipe which ran from the hydraulic brake of Loffland's rig to a fresh water tank. The tank belonged to Pure and was a part of the permanent equipment of the platform. It was constructed of metal. The top of it presented a curved surface approximately 15 feet above the deck of the platform. There were no handrails or other safety life lines around the edge of the tank top, although the tank was equipped with a permanent welded ladder evidencing the likelihood that workmen would be going to and from the tank top from time to time. The water from the tank went to the hydromatic brake through a "suction" line and was returned to the tank by the overhead line. This pipe was suspended horizontally above the platform and ran from the rig to the top of the water tank.

It was this pipe which had to be dismantled to permit skidding the rig. This was being done by Snipes and his fellow Loffland employees. Snipes went to the top of the tank in order to lift the tank end of the pipe out of the hole through which it entered the tank. After doing this and while Snipes was sliding the pipe across the tank top so that the other workers standing on the deck could lower it to the platform, the pipe, still in a horizontal plane, broke at a collar joint. When the breaking permitted one end of the pipe to drop toward the platform, the end on the tank top moved abruptly upward. As a consequence Snipes was thrown from the tank top. In falling he struck the platform deck 15 feet below. But he did not land there. Earlier that morning employees of Pure had removed some sections of the expanded metal grating next to the tank thus leaving a space about 3 feet by 20 feet. This space was not at the edge of the platform. Rather it left a "hole" in the platform near the tank. After momentarily striking the platform deck, Snipes fell through the open space and dropped into the ocean 50 feet below. In the course of this fall, he hit at least two steel structure members. Despite his injuries, he was able to get to a ring life buoy thrown to him. This kept him afloat for the estimated five to fifteen minutes during which time he was drifting quickly away from the platform under a strong tidal current. He was picked up by a Pure motor launch summoned to the scene by a radio emergency May Day alarm and was shortly thereafter transferred by airplane to a hospital ashore. His injuries were severe, the hospital and medical treatment long and extended, and substantial permanent disabilities resulted.

In every sense of the word this happened on the high seas. It did not happen in Louisiana. Nor did it happen in waters which Louisiana could regard as within her territorial boundaries. If Louisiana law is to apply, it is because Congress has specified that this is so. Pure contends that this is the consequence of § 1333(a) (2) which "To the extent that they are applicable and not inconsistent with this sub-chapter or with other Federal laws and regulations * * *" adopts as Federal law the civil and criminal law of the adjacent state for the subsoil, seabed and offshore structures. Such "civil and criminal laws of each adjacent State * * * are declared to be the law of the United States * * *."3

We think that a consideration of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors requires the conclusion that it was the intention of Congress that (a) this occurrence be governed by Federal, not State, law, and (b) that the Federal law thereby promulgated would be the pervasive maritime law of the United States. In connection with the latter phase — the choice by Congress of maritime law — it is again important to keep in mind that we are in an area in which Congress has an almost unlimited power to determine what standards shall comprise the Federal law.

On this approach we are not confronted with the question whether Congress would have the constitutional power to declare as to these offshore activities that for an essentially maritime matter a nonmaritime standard is to be followed.4 At most, we have a question whether Congress may treat an occurrence in this new geographical area as substantially maritime even though on traditional lines an event taking place on a structure fixed permanently to the bed of the water might be regarded as non-maritime. For that matter, even in the development of that decisional law, the course was never fixed and there were frequent conceptual deviations. Thus, while damage by vessels to a pier was non-maritime, The Plymouth, 1866, 3 Wall. 20, 70 U.S. 20, 18 L.Ed. 125, damage to a beacon or similar structure maintained primarily as an aid to navigation, was maritime. The Blackheath, 1904, 195 U.S. 361, 25 S.Ct. 46, 49 L.Ed. 236; The Raithmoor, 1916, 241 U.S. 166, 36 S.Ct. 514, 60 L.Ed. 937. After considerable difference of opinion in the lower courts, the Supreme Court finally held in The Admiral Peoples, 1935, 295 U.S. 649, 55 S.Ct. 885, 79 L.Ed. 1633, 1935 AMC 875, that injuries received on the dock as a result of falling from a defective ship's gangway was maritime. In T. Smith & Son, Inc. v. Taylor, 1928, 276 U.S. 179, 48 S.Ct. 228, 72 L.Ed. 520, 1928 AMC 447, a longshoreman standing on the wharf projecting a few feet over the water was struck by a sling load of cargo and was knocked into the water where he was some time later found dead. The Court held that occurrence was subject to the local law, not maritime. In contrast in L'hote v....

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    ...to the outer margin of the outer Continental Shelf . . . . Id. at § 1333(a)(2). In a line of decisions beginning with Pure Oil Co. v. Snipes, 293 F.2d 60 (CA5 1961), this circuit construed § 1333 of the Lands Act to make federal maritime law, as supplemented by state laws, applicable to inj......
  • Chevron Oil Company v. Huson 8212 11
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    ...for the Fifth Circuit holding that admiralty law, including the doctrine of laches, applies through the Lands Act. See, e.g., Pure Oil Co. v. Snipes, 293 F.2d 60; Movible Offshore Co. v. Ousley, 346 F.2d 870; Loffland Bros. Co. v. Roberts, 386 F.2d 540. When the respondent was injured, for ......
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    ...Shelf in the Coast Guard, "the agency traditionally charged with regulation and enforcement of maritime matters." Pure Oil Co. v. Snipes, 293 F.2d 60, 66 (CA5 1961). See 43 U.S.C. § 1333(d). In accordance with that authorization, the Coast Guard promptly promulgated a code of safety regulat......
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1 books & journal articles
  • And Not a Drop to Drink: Admiralty Law and the BP Well Blowout
    • United States
    • Louisiana Law Review No. 73-1, October 2012
    • 1 Julio 2012
    ...Co., 395 U.S. 352 (1969) (reversing two Fifth Circuit decisions below and undermining the Circuit’s decision in Snipes v. Pure Oil Co. , 293 F.2d 60 (5th Cir. 1961), which favored the applicability of admiralty law to accidents occurring on permanent drilling platforms); Offshore Logistics,......

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