U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment in Favor of Shipowner Based on Open and Obvious Defense
In Troutman v. Seaboard Atlantic LTD., No. 19-10533 (11th Cir. 2020) , the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Seaboard, finding that Troutman’s suit was barred because, among other reasons, the hazardous condition that led to his injury was open and obvious.
At the time of his accident, Troutman had been employed as a longshoreman for over 19 years and had worked on the subject vessel over 20 times. Troutman worked as a lasher. Lashers work to secure, and to release securing mechanisms for, cargo being loaded onto the ship. The hazardous condition at issue was an elevated walkway which included a six-to-eight foot drop from the walkway to the deck. On some occasions, the elevated walkway was protected by a rope fence. Other times, Troutman and other longshoremen had to ask Seaboard to put up the fence.
On the day of Troutman’s accident, there was no rope fence protecting the elevated walkway. Troutman knew the elevated walkway was unsafe without the rope fence. He also knew he was not obligated to put himself in danger to perform his job, and that if a dangerous condition was present he was not required to work through it. He did not ask Seaboard to put up a fence on the day of his accident. Neither party disputed that the elevated walkway, in its exposed state, was an open and obvious hazard. Unfortunately, while walking on the elevated walkway, Troutman tripped on loose lashing materials left there by another longshoremen and fell to the deck below.
The appellate court concluded that, generally, a shipowner does not breach the duty to turn over a vessel in safe condition when the hazard at issue was open and obvious and could have been avoided by a reasonably competent stevedore. The appellate court also found shipowners are entitled to rely on the expertise and experience of the stevedoring company or longshoremen to deal with hazards that may arise. An “expert and experienced stevedore” acting with reasonable care would have been able to avoid the walkway, thus Seaboard was not negligent in allowing the walkway to exist in its exposed state.
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