(CN) - The employer of a 22-year-old longshoreman who had his legs sliced off by an errant steel hose lost its bid to shift its portion of a $37 million judgment to the captain of the boat it chartered to work on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The 5th Circuit said the captain's actions "reflect[ed] a concern for safety" rather than a disregard for it.
Seth Becker lost both of his legs and about nine points of blood in the 1999 accident aboard the Republic Tide. He won a $37 million award under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act.
The trial court assigned 55 percent of the blame to Baker Hughes Inc., Becker's employer and the boat's charterer, and 45 percent to boat owner Tidewater Inc. The lower court also ruled that Baker had to fully indemnify Tidewater for any injuries to Baker's employees, including Becker.
On appeal, Becker and Baker argued that more of the blame -- or even all of it -- should have fallen on Tidewater, because its captain had allegedly acted with gross negligence.
Becker and Baker Hughes said the captain's decision to break the starboard-stem mooring line without telling crew members was grossly negligent. The captain said he needed to break the line to avoid hitting the oil rig. But the move also pulled the steel hose taut, pinning Becker, who had been standing in the bend of the hose when the mooring line snapped. The hose cut clean through one leg and almost through the other, which later had to be amputated below the knee.
Becker and Baker said the captain's failure to warn amounted to gross negligence, because he knew that moving the Republic Tide would tighten the hose across the rig's deck, where Becker and two other crew members were attempting to disconnect the hose.
The New Orleans-based appellate panel viewed the decision more as "inadvertence" than negligence, because the captain had been trying to keep the Republic Tide from colliding with the oil rig.
"The situation was an emergency, and the captain needed to act quickly," the court wrote. "He moved the Republic Tide, but only to avoid a collision with the rig. The captain's actions thus reflect a concern for safety, rather than a reckless disregard for safety."
The court also rejected Baker's claim that Tidewater breached an indemnity agreement or that Baker can only be held liable for "general damages."
However, the court said Baker is only liable for its negligence as the boat's charterer, not as Becker's employer.
It remanded for a new apportionment of fault that doesn't include Baker's alleged failure to train employees to use the hose system or warn them of the potential dangers.
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