A new decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has addressed the scope of the phrase “in the course of employment” in the context of corporate vicarious liability under the Jones Act. In Beech v. Hercules Drilling Company, decided on Aug. 14, 2012, the Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and held that an employer could not be held vicariously liable under the Jones Act for the accidental shooting death of a seaman on board the employer’s vessel, as the seaman who shot the Plaintiff-Appellee’s husband was not acting in the course of his employment.
Beech was a wrongful death action, commenced by the widow of a seaman who was accidentally shot and killed by his co-worker, Michael Cosenza, while working on board a jack-up drilling rig owned by the Defendant-Appellant, Hercules Drilling Company, LLC (“Hercules”). In violation of company policy, Cosenza accidentally brought a firearm with him onto the vessel while working as the only crewman on duty during a night shift. In further violation of Hercules’ safety policy, Cosenza did not report the firearm, but kept it hidden in his locker. While showing the gun to Mr. Beech, who was off-duty at the time, the gun accidentally discharged, killing Beech. Beech’s widow brought a wrongful death action against Hercules under the Jones Act. Following a bench trial, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana concluded that both Cosenza and Beech were acting in the course and scope of their employment at the time Mr. Beech was shot. Hercules appealed this decision, arguing that Beech and Cosenza were not acting in the court of their employment at the time of the accident.
Reviewing the matter de novo, the Fifth Circuit first considered the history of the Jones Act, which was enacted by Congress to create a negligence cause of action for ship personnel against their employers. While recognizing that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Jones Act is entitled to a liberal construction in order to achieve its purpose of providing for the welfare of seamen, the Court noted that the basis of an employer’s liability must be his negligence, not the fact that injuries occur. The Court noted that, as relevant to the facts of Beech, an employer can be held vicariously liable for the negligence of its employees if the negligence occurred “in the course of employment.”
In evaluating the facts and the law on appeal, the Fifth Circuit considered its own prior decisions, as well as decisions of the Sixth and Seventh Circuit Courts of Appeals, and ultimately held that:
“…regardless of whether the underlying injurious conduct was negligent or intentional, the test for whether a Jones Act employee was acting within the course and scope of his employment is whether his actions at the time of the injury were in furtherance of his employer’s business interests.”
Applying this test to the facts of Beech, the Court concluded that Cosenza was not acting within the course and scope of his employment when he accidentally shot Beech and, as such, regardless of whether Beech was acting within the course and scope of his employment, his widow could not recover from Hercules under the Jones Act. The Court found that Hercules’ business interests were for Cosenza to monitor the generator, check certain equipment, and report any suspicious activities or problems. The Court rejected the District Court’s findings that Cosenza was acting in the course of his employment at the moment when the gun discharged, as one of his job duties was to “report suspicious activities or problems.” The Court concluded that Cosenza’s “leaving the break room to retrieve a loaded firearm when he was supposed to be monitoring the generator and watching out for suspicious behavior took him outside the course and scope of his employment.” The Court commented that such conduct was “so clearly contrary to Hercules’ business interests” that it would have reached the same conclusion even if Cosenza’s actions had not been in violation of a specific company policy.
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George M. Chalos is the founder of Chalos & Co, P.C. – International Law Firm, which specializes in both civil and criminal maritime and admiralty law matters. Visit www.chaloslaw.com. Follow Chalos & Co, P.C., on Twitter: @ChalosLaw.