A Seaman May Not Be Held Contributorily Negligent

A Seaman May Not Be Held Contributorily Negligent For Carrying Out Orders That Result In Injury, Even If The Seaman Recognizes Possible Danger And Does Not Delay To Consider A Safer Alternative

In SIMEONOFF v. HINER and CLAREHINER the UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT 2001 U.S. App. LEXIS 8518; 2001 Cal. Daily Op. Service 3621;2001 Daily Journal DAR 4461 the court dealt with an extremely important issue, that being under what circumstances would a seaman be negligent for following an order that put the seaman in danger. At sea, there is no time for a seaman to leisurely consider the safety of orders that are received. If each seaman were charged with that duty, chaos could follow. If seaman could pick and choose which orders to follow, orders would lose their meaning.

John Simeonoff injured his foot while crab fishing on a commercial vessel, the F/V SAGA (“SAGA”). With the aid of a cruise ship injury lawyer, Simeonoff brought a claim pursuant to the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688 et seq., and general maritime law against the SAGA and ship owners, Clare and Todd Hiner (“Hiners”) claiming negligence and unseaworthiness. After a bench trial, the district court found the SAGA and the Hiners seventy percent negligent and Simeonoff thirty percent negligent. The court found $163,500 total damages and, reducing that by thirty percent, awarded $114,450 to Simeonoff.

On appeal Simeonoff argued that the district court erred in finding appellant contributorily negligent. The appeals court reversed the district court’s judgment on this issue. The court found that Simeonoff could not be held contributorily negligent for responding to an urgent, yet general, call to the vessel’s crew for assistance; therefore, the district court clearly erred by reducing his monetary award based on a finding of contributory negligence

The appeals court commented on this issue as follows:

“When given any order, a seaman might be aware of potential injury if the order is followed, but reasonably might sacrifice personal safety for the good of the ship or crew. An order given from superior to seaman on the open sea should constitute the result of the superior’s consideration of risk to the seaman balanced against the value of the task to the safety and mission of all. It is more reasonable for a seaman to follow an order without assessing alternatives than to weigh alternatives beyond the immediate order. To assess alternatives is to second-guess a superior’s assessment of the situation. Disruption of the chain of command at sea, and delays by seamen in executing orders, may imperil crew and vessel.”

The court went on to point out that a seaman could still be negligent under certain circumstances. The issues raised by this case are important to ship owners since they must give orders that will not result in injury to their seaman. The case is important to seaman who can follow their orders without having to stop and have a debate with themselves or others about the risks involved.

In the end, a vessel at sea must have discipline because ultimately the safety of all aboard could be involve with respect to any given order.