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Senko v. Lacrosse Dredging Corp.

OCTOBER 3, 1955.




Appeal from the City Court of Granite City; the Hon. WESLEY LUEDERS, Judge, presiding. Judgment reversed.


Jacob Senko brought this suit against his employer, LaCrosse Dredging Corporation, claiming that he had suffered personal injuries through the negligence of said employer. After a jury verdict of $30,000 for plaintiff, the trial court required a remittitur and entered judgment for $20,000. The defendant's motion for judgment and for new trial were both denied.

The suit was filed under the provisions of Section 33 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C.A. Sec. 688. In substance, the Jones Act provides that seamen on vessels operating in navigable waters, who are injured in the course of their employment, shall have the same rights and remedies at law, which appertain to railway employees under other federal statutes. Questions presented on this appeal require a full statement of facts, and a review of the legislative and judicial background of the statute, since it is an unusual type of case in a state court.

Defendant operated a dredge on which plaintiff was employed. At the request of a labor union, defendant had erected a shed on land near its dredging operations, equipped with benches and a stove, so that, during off-duty intervals, the workmen would have a place to warm themselves and obtain shelter. The incident in question occurred in or near this shed on November 5, 1951.

About 10:45 p.m. plaintiff came from the dredge to the shed, where he heard another employee (the assistant superintendent) say that he would put some coal on the fire. This was done by removing a stove lid, picking up a coal bucket, and emptying the contents in the stove. Apparently plaintiff did not actually see the operation, but the fire flared up with a great flash and both men ran out, colliding at the doorway and falling. Or perhaps plaintiff was just approaching the door from outside and was met by the running man. Plaintiff was somewhat vague as to the details, but anyway, he fell. He claims severe injuries resulted to him.

It is plaintiff's theory that he is a seaman under the Jones Act, that there must have been something other than coal in the bucket to cause the flash, that he has not attempted to prove specific acts of negligence, but defendant should be held liable under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

Defendant contends it is entitled to a directed verdict because: 1, plaintiff was not a member of a crew of seamen and is not under the Jones Act; 2, the dredge was not operating in navigable waters; and 3, there was no evidence of negligence on its part and no basis to apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

From examination of the abstract and briefs, we find no dispute as to the facts material to the first defense. It appears that, prior to plaintiff's said employment, the dredging equipment had been brought to the site by a tug, during which movement the crew of the tug managed the dredge and provided it with navigation lights. The dredge was anchored about 15 feet from shore in Gabaret Chute, which is a slough connected with the Mississippi, the purpose being to dredge out a by-pass around a rocky section of the river through the slough to a canal connected to the river at another point.

The dredge consisted of a scow or barge upon which was mounted dredging machinery, pumps, dynamo, etc. It operated day and night, so that it had a lighting system, including the white mooring lights required on stationary objects. A pipe ran from the barge to the shore, through which excavated material was pumped and disposed of. The pipe rested on pontoons, and this formed a walk, with handrail, by which the men could come and go. There was also a rowboat, but the distance from shore was too short to row, so in using the boat, it was simply given a push to move it the few feet.

The dredge had arms or poles called "spuds" which pushed into the bottom and held the position, and there were also cables to the shore for additional anchorage. The barge could be moved slowly by operating the spuds in a walking fashion, also by winding the cables on a winch. Other than these contacts with the ground the barge had no means of locomotion.

Dredging operations were conducted by four men aboard, an operator, an engineer, an oiler, and plaintiff. Defendant did not furnish meals or sleeping quarters, all the men lived ashore, worked eight-hour shifts, were paid by the hour, and plaintiff drove back and forth daily from his home some 40 miles distant. Of the four men, the first three were members of a building crafts union, and plaintiff was a member of the Common Laborer's Union at Mt. Olive. He secured this employment through the union hall at Granite City, and all four men had union permits to work at this particular site.

According to a witness permitted to testify as to the usual duties of a laborer or deckhand on a dredge, the duties were to clean the deck, also the navigation lights, and to take soundings when the barge was in motion. However, these items were not pertinent to the plaintiff, for there were no navigation lights on the dredge, and he had taken soundings only for the purpose of noting the depth of the cut. He had nothing to do with moving the barge and testified he had never been aboard when it was moved. He gave as his main duties the delivery of supplies and proper storage thereof, bringing them when needed, and sometimes taking things ashore where other men were working at earth moving.

From the foregoing, it is apparent that, by any ordinary test, the plaintiff would not classify as a seaman. However, the courts have enlarged the meaning of the term. It was often said that a seaman aiding in navigation was not limited to those who can "hand, reef and steer." Thus it was easy to include all those who customarily traveled with a vessel in its movements, such as a cook, a clerk, a stewardess, etc. But the broadening of the definition continued, until it came to include practically any workman whose duties required him to set foot on a ship at any time or place. Thus, longshoremen were designated as seamen, although they worked only at loading or unloading a vessel tied at the docks.

A longshoreman injured in the course of his duties on land would normally come under the state's Workmen's Compensation Act, but if the injury occurred on the vessel while it was in navigable waters, the state law could not apply, for the federal law had jurisdiction. These ...

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