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Summary Judgment Denied as Court Finds Issues of Material Fact in Shipbuilder’s Claim

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, September 23, 2022

In April 2020, Paul Hotard (“decedent”) received a mesothelioma diagnosis despite never handling or working with asbestos-containing materials while employed at the Avondale Shipyards.  While employed, decedent’s duties consisted of handing pipe to the pipefitters and tacking pipe together for a welder to weld.  Nevertheless, decedent brought this action alleging the inhalation of asbestos fibers during vessel construction at Avondale caused his malignant pleural mesothelioma diagnosis.  Mr. Hotard died in September 2021 and his widow stepped in as the administratrix of his estate. 

Defendant SeaRiver Maritime, Inc. owned three Super Tanker vessels built at Avondale Shipyard during the decedent’s employment.  SeaRiver moved for summary judgment contending plaintiff’s negligence claims against it failed.  First, SeaRiver argued that it did not have a duty to warn decedent of risks inherent to his job because it controlled neither his work nor the shipyard.  Secondly, SeaRiver argued it did not have garde or legal control over decedent’s worksite, as Avondale had custody of its shipyard.  As such, SeaRiver contended plaintiff could not prevail on strict liability. 

As a response, plaintiff contended that defendants SeaRiver and Exxon Mobile Corporation (who had joined issued), were negligent under direct and vicarious liability.  Plaintiff alleged defendants failed to warn decedent of the dangers of asbestos despite its knowledge of the risks inherent to employment at a shipyard.  Plaintiff argued this issue defeated defendant’s motion for summary judgment.  A court will grant summary judgment when the pleadings and evidence demonstrate that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact such that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Moreover, a “genuine issue” of “material fact” exists when a jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party based on the evidence presented. 

The court first examined the issue of duty.  It recognized that a defendant can be vicariously liable for an independent contractor when such defendant owns the premises where the harm occurred.  Defendants argued that Avondale was the premises owner of the Avondale shipyard and that the incomplete vessels did not yet constitute a premise.  The court rejected both theories because decedent’s injuries occurred while inside the hull of defendant Exxon’s vessel.  Since decedent worked on a vessel owned by defendants’ corporate predecessor, defendant’s argument failed. 

Next, the court addressed the issues of vicarious and strict liability.  Defendants stated they could not be liable because they lacked operational control over the work performed at Avondale, including that of the decedent.  Defendants also reasoned that they could not be vicariously liable for the subcontractor who allegedly supplied the asbestos-containing materials.  The contract between the parties established Avondale as an “independent contractor” and established a principal-independent contractor relationship with defendants.  However, the court still needed to determine whether defendants had any actual operational control over its independent contractor.  Since Avondale provided all of decedent’s tools and training, the court determined defendants lacked any operational control over defendant or other shipyard employees.  Nevertheless, the court determined defendants could still have owed decedent a duty if they expressly or implied authorized unsafe work practice in the construction of their vessels.  The court ruled that plaintiff succeeded in proving the existence of a genuine issue of material fact by asserting the known dangers of asbestos constituted defendants authorizing an unsafe work environment. 

Nevertheless, defendants contended they were not directly liable to decedent either, since it was Avondale’s decision to use asbestos at all of its shipyards.  Subsequently, decedent should have known of the inherent risks associated with employment on an Avondale shipyard.  The court rejected this argument as well, reasoning that a jury could find that defendants failed to warn decedent despite the inherent dangers of a shipyard.   

Lastly, the court required plaintiff to establish that (1) defendants had “garde” (custody and control over the damage-causing objet); (2) the object had a defect creating an unreasonably risk of harm; and (3) the defect caused decedent’s injuries, in order to defeat defendants’ motion.  The court reasoned it was possible for more than one party to have garde over an item.  Since there was no contention, that plaintiff alleged that asbestos caused decendt’s injuries; the court ruled the crucial question was whether defendants had garde over the asbestos.  As such, it determined genuine issues of material fact existed, and thus denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment.  

Read the full decision here