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Jones v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 28, 2019

WILFRED JONES, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

          Before KING, SMITH, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.

          DON R. WILLETT, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Wilfred Jones fell while making his duty rounds aboard the M/V CAPE KNOX, injuring his arm. He alleges that grease on the deck caused him to slip. He sued the ship's owner-the United States-for negligence under the Jones Act and unseaworthiness under general maritime law. The district court granted summary judgment against Jones because he had no evidence that grease caused his fall.

         On appeal, causation evidence remains scant. The Jones Act causation standard is lower than at common law. But it still requires some evidence. Plus, the district court had more than the usual summary-judgment discretion since this would be a bench trial. We AFFIRM the judgment.

         I

         Jones was an engineer aboard the CAPE KNOX. The United States owns the CAPE KNOX, and Keystone Shipping Company operates it. While making his rounds as duty officer, Jones entered the emergency diesel generator room. As he lifted his left foot over the hatch's nine-inch threshold, his right foot slipped. He fell against the carbon dioxide bottles inside the emergency diesel generator room. He did not see what caused him to slip. It was after dark, but Jones had a flashlight with him. He did not see grease on the deck or on his shoes at the time. In a "Report of Illness" the next day, Jones wrote "as I was completing duty round I lost balance and fell into the CO2 bottles in the EDG room causing me to fall on my right forearm."

         At his deposition, Jones testified he believed he slipped on grease on the deck. The CAPE KNOX had cables above the weather decks that were greased regularly. That grease often dropped onto the deck. An overhang covers the deck outside the emergency diesel generator room, but grease can be tracked or spread across a deck. The deck outside the emergency diesel generator room had a nonskid coating. Jones admitted that it was only "some time after" his fall that he realized he had slipped on grease. He looked into the matter after realizing the seriousness of his injury.

         Jones sued the United States and Keystone. He asserted a negligence claim under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104, via the Suits in Admiralty Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30903 (waiving sovereign immunity); an unseaworthiness claim under general maritime law; and a claim for maintenance and cure under general maritime law. The district court granted summary judgment to the United States, and Jones appealed. On appeal he argues only the negligence and unseaworthiness claims.

         II

         The summary-judgment standard marks our course. The everyday standard is familiar but applies uniquely in bench-trial cases. So we lay it out from harbor to anchorage.

         A

         "We review grants of summary judgment de novo."[1] Summary judgment is proper if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[2] "[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of . . . demonstrat[ing] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact."[3] Once the moving party does so, the nonmoving party must "go beyond the pleadings and . . . designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial."[4] An issue is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable [factfinder] could return a verdict for the nonmoving party."[5] "A non-movant will not avoid summary judgment by presenting 'speculation, improbable inferences, or unsubstantiated assertions.'"[6] "Rule 56 'mandates the entry of summary judgment . . . against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.'"[7]

         Under 46 U.S.C. § 30903(b), an admiralty action against the United States as shipowner must be tried to the court. We have held that "[i]n a non- jury case, such as this one, 'a district court has somewhat greater discretion to consider what weight it will accord the evidence.'"[8] "When deciding a motion for summary judgment prior to a bench trial, the district court 'has the limited discretion to decide that the same evidence, presented to him or her as a trier of fact in a plenary trial, could not possibly lead to a different result.'"[9]

         B

         Jones seeks to recover for his injuries based on employer negligence. Under 46 U.S.C. § 30104, "[a] seaman injured in the course of employment . . . may elect to bring a civil action at law . . . against the employer." Here Jones's employer, Keystone, acted as agent for the shipowner, the United States. So the United States is liable for Keystone's negligence.[10]

         Some elements of Jones Act negligence follow the common law. In Gautreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., we recognized that the employer's duty of care "retains the usual and familiar definition of ordinary prudence."[11] But the Jones Act causation standard is lighter than at common law. "A seaman is entitled to recovery under the Jones Act . . . if his employer's negligence is the cause, in whole or in part, of his injury."[12] The plaintiff can show causation if "employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury."[13] This standard is identical to that of the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. § 51, so "FELA case law applies to Jones Act cases."[14]

         Jones contends there was grease in many places on the ship's deck, and this was the most likely cause of his fall. He also contends that the district court prematurely decided witnesses' credibility and incorrectly burdened him with immediately investigating the accident. The United States responds that Jones has no evidence for the causation element of his claim. Jones did not see himself slip on grease or see ...


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