Supreme Court Rules Big Dig Dredge a Vessel for Purpose of Allowing Injured Worker to Sue Owner

February 23, 2005

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that workers injured on dredges like one used in the Big Dig construction are not limited to workers compensation but may also sue the vessel’s owner for negligence.

Writing for the court in an 8-0 ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas reversed lower court opinions that had prevented the injured worker in the case, Willard Stewart, from suing Dutra Construction Company after he fell through a hatch when the Super Scooper dredge he was working on collided with a nearby floating platform used to collect sediment.

The decision hinged on whether the Super Scooper dredge, a massive floating platform from which a clamshell bucket is suspended beneath the water, can be properly categorized as a vessel under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. The high court ruled that it could be.

It also turned on whether a worker on a dredge or similar floating vessel could be considered a seaman, to which the court answered yes.

The Super Scoop was engaged by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to dig the 50 foot deep, 100 foot wide, three-quarter mile long trench beneath Boston Harbor that is now the Ted Williams Tunnel. The Super Scoop has certain characteristics such as a crew and captain, navigational lights and ballast tanks but lacks others, most notably, a well-developed means of self-propulsion. Instead of self-propulsion, it primarily moved along with the assistance of a tugboat.

After his serious accident, Stewart sued Dutra, the owner of Super Scooper, for negligence under the Jones Act and filed an alternative claim under the LHWCA, which authorizes employees to sue a “vessel” owner as a third party for an injury caused by the owner’s negligence.

Dutra argued that the Super Scoop was not a vessel within the intent of the Jones Act since its primary purpose was dredging not transportation and it was stationary. The construction firm also argued that any negligence that may have occurred was committed in its capacity as an employer rather than as owner of the vessel.

Prior to the Jones Act, injured seamen were entitled to workers compensation and medical care but were barred from suing vessel owners for negligence. The Jones Act of 1920 was passed to remove this bar to negligence suits by seamen.

LHWCA, enacted in 1927, provides scheduled compensation for land-based maritime workers but excepts from its coverage “a master or member of a crew of any vessel.”

The U.S. District Court in Massachusetts and the U.S. Court of Appeals sided with Dutra.

The “Jones Act and the LHWCA are complementary regimes that work in tandem: The Jones Act provides tort remedies to sea-based maritime workers, while the LHWCA provides workers’ compensation too land-based maritime employees,” wrote Justice Thomas.

Thomas found that since Congress enacted LHWCA a vessel has been defined as “any watercraft practically capable of maritime transportation, regardless of its primary purpose or state of transit at a particular moment.”

Because the Super Scooper was engaged in maritime transportation at the time of Stewart’s injury, it is considered a vessel for purposes of triggering Stewart’s rights to sue for negligence, the court ruled.

The case is Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co., No. 03-814, decided February 22, 2005.

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