Maritime Safety Expert Investigates Cause Of An Offshore Vessel Injury


Safety Expert

Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Thomas v. W&T Offshore, Inc.
Citation: 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 145842

Facts

In this case, the plaintiff, Torrey Thomas, alleged that he tripped and fell after his boot became caught in a drainage hole on the tension leg platform of the Matterhorn Seastar, owned by the defendant. At the time of his accident, the plaintiff was employed as a galley hand on the Matterhorn Seastar. As a result of the fall, the plaintiff allegedly suffered injuries to his left knee and lumbar spine. Pending before the Court was the defendant W&T Offshore, Inc.’s motion to exclude the plaintiff’s expert witness.

The Expert

The plaintiff retained an expert in maritime safety to opine on the case. The expert worked in the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Inspection Office as well as the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office before his retirement from the U.S. Coast Guard in 1987. During this time, the expert’s work included examining oil field platforms for compliance with applicable regulation. Considering that Coast Guard regulations primarily apply to work performed on an offshore platform, the expert had extensive experience applying those regulations to the inspections of various vessels and platforms, the court found that he was qualified in the relevant field.

The defendant presented four grounds for excluding the plaintiff’s designated expert witness on maritime safety: (1) He was not qualified to offer an opinion regarding the safety of tension leg platforms; (2) his opinions were irrelevant because they ignored deposition testimony; (3) his opinions dis not aid the finder of fact because this was a simple case involving a trip and fall; and (4) his opinions should be excluded because he offered legal conclusions.

Court’s Discussion

The defendant argued that the expert was not qualified to render an opinion on platform safety or design because his opinion concerned vessels, as opposed to tension leg platforms. The plaintiff responded that the U.S. Coast Guard considers tension leg platforms to be vessels, and that the expert’s work had included the examination of inspected and uninspected oil field platforms for compliance with applicable regulations and statutes.

The defendant argued that the expert’s opinions regarding the condition of the drain should be excluded as irrelevant. It was argues that this opinion contradicted the plaintiff’s testimony indicating that he knew about the drain and did not believe that it was a hazard. In opposition, the plaintiff asserted that the plaintiff would not have known that the drain hole was defective and a hazard. In a previous order in this case, the court determined that the question of whether the drain hole was an open and obvious hazard was a genuine question of material fact that could not be decided on a motion for summary judgment. The court specifically cited the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in Broussard v. State ex rel. Office of State Buildings, which held that in order for a dangerous condition to be considered “open and obvious,” that condition “should be one that is open and obvious to all, i.e., everyone who may potentially encounter it.’’

In his report, the expert opined that the drain hole created a dangerous condition “which would not have been known or recognizable to a typical galley hand, but should have been known to the vessel’s owners and experienced crew members.” This statement did not indicate that the expert ignored the plaintiff’s statements in his deposition, as the expert was referring to the typical galley hand, rather than the plaintiff specifically. Considering that a typical galley hand was the type of person who encountered the drain hole, the expert’s reasoning fit the facts of the case in terms of whether the drain hole was an open and obvious condition. Moreover, the plaintiff’s statement that he was aware of the existence of the drain hole did not necessarily mean that the plaintiff was aware that the drain hole was a hazardous condition.

The defendant further argued that the expert’s opinions would not aid the finder of fact because this was a simple case involving a trip and fall. In response, the plaintiff argued that the expert’s “opinions were reliable in that they were based on his knowledge and experience. Moreover, the plaintiff asserted that this was not a simple trip and fall case, as there remained a question as to whether the alleged condition was an open and obvious condition and whether the cost of remedying the defect outweighed the benefits. The plaintiff also contended that the U.S. Coast Guard inspection requirements and protocols were not common knowledge.

The court further noted that the defendant’s objection to the plaintiff expert’s report should be addressed through cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof. A court’s role as a gatekeeper does not replace the traditional adversary system, and as a general rule, questions relating to the bases and sources of an expert’s opinion affect the weight to be assigned that opinion rather than its admissibility.” Because questions relating to the bases of an expert’s opinion generally go to the weight of an opinion, the court found there were sufficient grounds to establish the reliability of the expert’s opinions.

Finally, the defendant argued that the expert’s report should be excluded to the extent that it offered legal conclusions. In opposition, the plaintiff asserted that the expert’s opinion was not a legal conclusion because he did not opine that the defendant was negligent. The plaintiff contended that expert testimony was not objectionable because it embraced an ultimate issue as opposed to making a legal conclusion.

Held

The court found that the plaintiff’s maritime safety expert used sufficient facts in his report and has based his opinion on his specialized knowledge of marine safety regulations. Moreover, considering the questions of fact concerning whether the alleged condition was “open and obvious” and whether the cost of remedying the defect outweighed the benefits, the court found the expert’s testimony sufficiently tied to the facts of the case.

In Richardson v. SEACOR Lifeboats, LLC, another section of the Eastern District of Louisiana determined that an expert’s opinion was not an impermissible conclusion of law when that expert opined that a crane operator failed to safely operate a crane. The court determined that the expert could testify about the reasonable standard of care regarding crane operations and whether the defendant met that standard of care.

Here, similar to the expert in Richardson, the report discussed the standard of care applicable to maritime safety and opined that the defendant did not meet that standard of care. Moreover, the expert did not provide an opinion on the legal cause of the plaintiff’s accident or on the ultimate issue of whether the defendant acted negligently. As a result, the court found that the expert’s opinions were permissible conclusions of law.

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