In a stark reminder of the sanctity of Coast Guard investigations, and the consequences of impeding such investigations, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) recently took action against a maritime employer for allegedly retaliating against a seaman who cooperated with the Coast Guard in connection with its investigation of a maritime casualty. On October 20, 2017, Bouchard Transportation’s ATB BUSTER BOUCHARD/B. NO. 255 suffered an explosion and fire while transporting roughly 2,000 barrels of oil off Port Aransas, Texas. Two crewmembers perished as a result of the casualty. The brother of one of the deceased crewmembers, who also happened to be a Bouchard Transportation employee, cooperated with the Coast Guard in the ensuing investigation. Three months later, the surviving brother was terminated without explanation. OSHA found the termination constituted a retaliatory discharge in violation of the Seaman’s Protection Act (46 U.S.C. §2114) (the “SPA”). In broad terms, the SPA prohibits maritime employers from terminating or discriminating against seamen who cooperate with Coast Guard, Department of Labor or National Transportation Safety Board investigations. The obvious intent of the SPA is to guaranty “that, when seamen provide information of dangerous situations to the Coast Guard, they will be free from the “debilitating threat of employment reprisals for publicly asserting company violations” of maritime statutes or regulations.” Gaffney v. Riverboat Services of Indiana, Inc., 451 F.3d 424, 444 (7th Cir. 2006). In 2010, Congress empowered OSHA to administer claims arising under the SPA.
Today the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in this landmark case concerning punitive damages. The six justices in the majority opinion reversed the Ninth Circuit and resolved a circuit split on this issue. The question presented was whether punitive damages may be awarded to a Jones Act seaman in a personal injury suit alleging a breach of the general maritime duty to provide a seaworthy vessel. Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Thomas, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor.
In the aftermath of a 2012 platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in which three workers were killed, the Department of Justice ultimately indicted the contractors who supervised the work (along with the lease holder, Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations, LLC) with violating the Outer Continental Shelf Land Act (“OCSLA”), a felony carrying a maximum penalty of up to ten years imprisonment. The contractors were also charged with certain misdemeanor Clean Water Act violations. The contractors moved to dismiss the OCSLA charges on the basis that their conduct – as contractors – was not covered by OCSLA because they were not the lease holder or operator. The district court agreed and dismissed those charges, after which the government appealed. Earlier this week, the Fifth Circuit ruled against the government finding that contractors cannot criminally violate these OCSLA regulations. United States v. Moss, et al, No. 16-30561 (5th Cir. Sept. 27, 2017).
Earlier this year there was hope in the food and drug industries that the Supreme Court would revisit and possibly revise the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine, also known as the Park Doctrine, by granting certiorari to the Eighth Circuit’s decision in United States v. DeCoster. That hope was dashed in May when the Supreme Court declined, which left the Park Doctrine – with all of its ominous peril – the law of the land.…
Continue Reading U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision Not to Take Certiorari in United States v. DeCoster is a Reminder to the Food and Drug Industries to be Mindful of the Park Doctrine