High Stakes For Seamen In The Second Circuit: The Application Of Res Ipsa Loquitor In The Context Of Seamens' Personal Injury Claims

February 8, 2018 Published Work
TerraLex Connections Newsletter, 2018, Edition 1

Almost every sailor has experienced it –– while on the bow on a breezy day, a rogue wave or unforeseen puff causes the sailor to drop a line. After quickly recovering and completing the task at hand, the skipper asks, "What happened?" The sailor inevitably responds by saying something along the lines of, "I don't know – the line slipped." According the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, that is no longer an appropriate response. Not only does a seaman's loss of control of a line constitute negligence, it is enough for the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor.

In Manhattan by Sail, Inc. v. Tagle, a seaman dropped a halyard on a sightseeing passenger vessel and it swung back and struck a passenger in the head. The Second Circuit held that these facts were sufficient to invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor, and that the seaman's actions, even in the absence of res ipsa loquitor, amounted to negligence.[1] While the majority of the opinion consists of a discussion of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor, the court stated in a footnote that because it found that the seaman was negligent, the court's entire discussion of the standards for res ipsa liquitor constitutes dictum, not a holding of the case.[2] However, the res ipsa analysis is likely to be cited in future cases in the Second Circuit and beyond.

In Tagle, a passenger boarded a sightseeing vessel, the SHEARWATER, and was directed to sit near the base of the forestaysail mast, a mast that sits between the main mast and the bow. A halyard ran from the base of the forestaysail mast, up the mast, and back down to the forestaysail. The halyard attached to the sail by means of a one-pound stainless steel pelican clip. When the halyard was not attached to the sail, the line, and consequently the stainless steel clip, were free to swing like a pendulum from the base of the forestay (at the bow) to the forestaysail mast. A deckhand aboard the vessel was ordered to raise the forestaysail, and in preparing to do so, lost control of the halyard, allowing it to swing back toward the mast. The stainless steel clip then struck the passenger in head.[3] The passenger sued the vessel owner and operator, who then filed a petition seeking exoneration from liability under the Limitation of Liability Act.[4]

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Footnotes:

[1] 873 F.3d 177, 183,184–85 (2017).

[2] Id. at 183 n.2.

[3] Id. at 179–80.

[4] 46 U.S.C § 30501, et seq.

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