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New Eleventh Circuit Longshore Injury Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed the rule that a longshoreman cannot sue a vessel owner for injuries sustained as a result of an "open and obvious" condition. In Troutman v. Seaboard Atlantic Ltd., handed down today, a longshoreman fell from a walkway and injured himself while lashing containers in one of the stowage bays aboard a ship called the Seaboard Atlantic. Depending on how the ship was loaded, the walkway was sometimes level with the tops of containers in an adjacent bay. At the time of the longshoreman's injury, however, the adjacent bay was empty, leaving a six-to-eight foot drop from the walkway to the deck.


The longshoreman's employer, a stevedoring company, could have asked the ship's crew to rig a rope fence along the walkway, or the longshoreman could have waited for the adjacent bay to be loaded before starting lashing work.


The longshoreman sued the ship's owner for negligence, claiming that it turned the vessel over the stevedore in unsafe condition. A U.S. District Court in Florida granted the shipowner's motion for summary judgment, concluding that the raised walkway was an open and obvious condition that should have been avoided. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the district court. It reasoned that, under applicable U.S. Supreme Court precedent, a vessel owner owes a duty to turn the ship over to the stevedore in such a condition as to allow the stevedore to carry on cargo operations in reasonable safety. This includes warning the stevedore of any concealed or "latent" hazards. An experienced stevedore, however, is expected to recognize open and obvious hazards aboard the ship and deal with them appropriately. The raised walkway was just such an open and obvious hazard.

Raised walkways and catwalks are common aboard containerships. They may or may not present falling hazards depending on whether the cargo bays on either side of the walkway are filled with containers. Permanent handrails are often impractical as they can get in the way of lashing gear. While temporary guardrails can be rigged by the crew, it seems reasonable to expect an experienced stevedore to request them where necessary.


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