$500,000 settlement for an injured sailor who fell from an unsafe ladder on a ship and suffered a mild traumatic brain injury, knee, neck and back injuries.
RESULTS OF A PAST CASE ARE NO INDICATOR OF THE OUTCOME OF A FUTURE CASE UNDERTAKEN BY AN ATTORNEY BECAUSE EVERY CASE IS UNIQUE.
John Cooper and Bill O’Mara
A 32-year-old assistant-steward was working on a U.S. government owned vessel that was operated by a civilian contractor. Instead of a Jones Act case, the matter was handled under separate maritime law where the worker, although not in the military, was working for a big, international firm under contract to provide seamen for a military ship.
Our female client was a union employee aboard the ship when she fell in her stateroom as she retrieved papers from the upper bunk. She claimed that proper anti-skid tape had not been applied to a rung used on the ladder to access the bed.
The seaman struck her head on the ship floor and hit her knee on the ladder rung as she fell. She was diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury and required arthroscopic surgery for her knee. She also sustained neck and back injuries. Our client suffered ongoing cognitive impairment and chronic PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms. Her damages included a loss of future earnings in the well-paying field of being a crew member on a vessel.
We filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government under the Public Vessels Act and the Suits in Admiralty Act for maritime claims. The defendant alleged it was not negligent because the ladder system was properly installed during a retrofit of the ship. It said the injured worker never complained about the safety of the bunk or the ladder. The defendant claimed comparative fault was a factor because the assistant-steward admitted that she believed the ladder system was hazardous before she fell, but felt she had no choice but to use it.
Additionally, a large legal battle arose under the doctrine of governmental immunity for discretionary functions. As with the Federal Tort Claims Act, there is a wide exception to the waiver of sovereign immunity where the discretionary functions of government are used to make decisions about how to do certain tasks to fulfill government policy.
The civilian company providing the non-military crew for the vessel said the retrofit of the bunk access was ordered by the military as a part of federal policy and could not be second-guessed. We argued that the case involved routine maintenance and the failure to rectify the problems when the plaintiff complained to her superiors.
This body of law is extremely specific and would have completely barred recovery if the federal court found in favor of the defense on the issue. The matter was briefed but never ruled upon.
This maritime case involved some extremely complex areas of law. The Cooper Hurley team gathered evidence from a range of experts including a psychiatrist, a traumatic brain injury specialist, a neuropsychologist, an orthopedist, and vocational, economic and maritime procedure experts.
The case was resolved via negotiations with the experienced maritime defense attorneys for the U.S. government about 45 days before a trial in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, Norfolk Division. The plaintiff received a settlement of $500,000 plus maintenance and cure through the time of the agreement.