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Sanchez v. Enterprise Offshore Drilling LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

June 18, 2019



          Lee H. Rosenthal Chief United States District Judge

         I. Background

         In August 2018, while performing welding work on the Enterprise 263, a drilling rig owned and operated by Enterprise Offshore Drilling LLC, Gilbert Sanchez tripped on a pipe and injured his ankle and back. (Docket Entry No. 1-2 at 3). In December 2018, Sanchez sued Enterprise Offshore Drilling and his employer, Smart Fabricators, in state court, asserting a Jones Act negligence claim and a general maritime law unseaworthiness claim. ( 1). Smart Fabricators had paid Sanchez workers' compensation benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act until Sanchez filed his state-court petition. (Docket Entry No. 23 at 3).

         In January 2019, Enterprise Offshore Drilling and Smart Fabricators removed to this court. (Docket Entry No. 1). Sanchez dismissed his claims against Enterprise Offshore Drilling and moved to remand, arguing that the Jones Act precluded removal. 46 U.S.C. § 30104. The court found that Sanchez did not submit or identify evidence showing that he was a “seaman under the Jones Act, ” and denied his motion to remand. (Docket Entry No. 19 at 10-11). Smart Fabricators now moves for summary judgment, and Sanchez has responded. (Docket Entry Nos. 23, 24).

         Based on a careful review of the pleadings, the motion and response, the record, and the governing law, the summary judgment motion is granted. (Docket Entry No. 23). The reasons are set out in detail below.

         II. The Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment

         “Summary judgment is appropriate only when ‘the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Shepherd on Behalf of Estate of Shepherd v. City of Shreveport, 920 F.3d 278, 282-83 (5th Cir. 2019) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). “A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law, ” and “a fact issue is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Renwick v. PNK Lake Charles, L.L.C., 901 F.3d 605, 611 (5th Cir. 2018) (quotations and citations omitted). The moving party “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, ” and identifying the record evidence “which it believes demonstrate[s] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         “Where the non-movant bears the burden of proof at trial, ‘the movant may merely point to the absence of evidence and thereby shift to the non-movant the burden of demonstrating that there is an issue of material fact warranting trial.” Kim v. Hospira, Inc., 709 Fed.Appx. 287, 288 (5th Cir. 2018) (alteration omitted) (quoting Nola Spice Designs, L.L.C. v. Haydel Enters., Inc., 783 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2015)). The moving party must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, but it need not negate the elements of the nonmovant's case. Austin v. Kroger Tex., L.P., 864 F.3d 326, 335 (5th Cir. 2017). “If the moving party fails to meet [its] initial burden, the motion must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant's response.” Pioneer Expl., L.L.C. v. Steadfast Ins. Co., 767 F.3d 503, 511 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting Kee v. City of Rowlett, 247 F.3d 206, 210 (5th Cir. 2001)).

         “When the moving party has met its Rule 56(c) burden, the nonmoving party cannot survive a summary judgment motion by resting on the mere allegations of its pleadings.” Duffie v. United States, 600 F.3d 362, 371 (5th Cir. 2010). The nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate “the precise manner in which” that evidence supports that party's claim. Willis v. Cleco Corp., 749 F.3d 314, 317 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting Forsyth v. Barr, 19 F.3d 1527, 1537 (5th Cir. 1994)). “A party cannot defeat summary judgment with conclusory allegations, unsubstantiated assertions, or only a scintilla of evidence.” Lamb v. Ashford Place Apartments L.L.C., 914 F.3d 940, 946 (5th Cir. 2019) (quotation omitted). In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Wease v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, 915 F.3d 987, 992 (5th Cir. 2019).

         B. The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act and the Jones Act

          Congress enacted the Longshore Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) to give maritime workers a “quick, certain compensation from their employers regardless of fault.” Chenevert v. Travelers Indem. Co., 746 F.3d 581, 585 (5th Cir. 2014). In exchange, employers “are generally absolved from any further liability in relation to such injuries.” Id. Under the Jones Act, a “seaman injured in the course of employment . . . may elect to bring a civil action at law . . . against the employer.” 46 U.S.C. § 30104. The LHWCA and Jones Act are “mutually exclusive” compensation regimes. Harbor Tug & Barge Co. v. Papai, 520 U.S. 548, 553 (1997). If a plaintiff qualifies as a seaman, the Jones Act controls; if the plaintiff does not qualify, he or she “is protected only by the LWHCA.” Becker v. Tidewater, Inc., 335 F.3d 376, 386 (5th Cir. 2003) (citing Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 355-58 (1997)).

         If Sanchez cannot raise a fact issue material to his seaman status, he may seek compensation only from Smart Fabricators under the LHWCA, entitling the company to summary judgment on Sanchez's Jones Act negligence claim and general maritime law unseaworthiness claim. See 33 U.S.C § 905(b) (a worker covered by the LHWCA does not have a cause of action for unseaworthiness or a negligence claim against the employer unless it owned the vessel); Levene v. Pintail Enters. Inc., 943 F.2d 528, 531 (5th Cir. 1991) (LHWCA makes employers fully immune from tort suits brought by their employees, unless the employer acted in a dual capacity as vessel owner); Washington v. Blanchard Contractors, Inc., No. H-8-1806, 2009 WL 1108922, at *5 (S.D. Tex. Apr. 24, 2009).

         “Land-based workers are not seamen.” Alexander v. Express Energy Servs. Operating, L.P., 784 F.3d 1032, 1033 (5th Cir. 2015) (quotation omitted). “The seaman inquiry is a mixed question of law and fact, and it often will be inappropriate to take the question from the jury.” Papai, 520 U.S. at 554; Wilcox v. Welders, 969 F.Supp.2d 668, 674 (E.D. La. 2013), aff'd sub nom. Wilcox v. Wild Well Control, Inc., 794 F.3d 531 (5th Cir. 2015), as revised (Aug. 11, 2015). “Summary judgment is appropriate where the facts and the law will reasonably support only one conclusion.” Papai, 520 U.S. at 554 (quotation and citation omitted). However, “[i]f reasonable persons, ...

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