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Stephens v. Inland Tugs Co.

OPINION FILED NOVEMBER 30, 1976.

JAMES STEPHENS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

INLAND TUGS COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Madison County; the Hon. HAROLD R. CLARK, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE GEORGE J. MORAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied December 28, 1976.

Defendant appeals from a judgment of the circuit court of Madison County, wherein the trial court denied the defendant's post-trial motion after a jury rendered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff for $85,000 in an action based on negligence under the Jones Act (46 U.S.C. § 688 (1970)) and unseaworthiness under General Maritime Law.

Plaintiff James Stephens was employed as a deckhand by defendant Inland Tugs Company. His duties apparently consisted of periodic watches and other general responsibilities in connection with the operation of defendant's barges. One of the general duties of a deckhand is to check the running lights of the barges, which is necessary not only for the safety of the crew, but also for oncoming barges or ships. The usual procedure for checking the lights is to radio the oncoming vessels and verify their perception. Only in rare circumstances is it necessary for a crew member to personally check the lights.

On May 7, 1971, plaintiff was working on the M/V Floyd Baske, a barge operated by the defendant. Both parties agree that it was raining heavily during the early morning hours on that day and that visibility was limited. As a result of the weather, radio communication was not a dependable method of checking the running lights. Consequently, a crew member was required to personally check the lights. Plaintiff and another deckhand were directed to walk along the barges and check the running lights and in this process plaintiff slipped on the walkway and fell into an open hatch containing steel pipe. After the fall, plaintiff was hospitalized for the remainder of the month and received treatment from numerous physicians.

Defendant contends (1) that the trial court erred in allowing the question of defendant's negligence to go to the jury, (2) that the trial court erred in giving certain instructions to the jury, and (3) that the trial court erred in overruling defendant's objections to plaintiff's evidence.

• 1, 2 Defendant contends there was an insufficient amount of evidence to submit the case to the jury. The test to determine whether there is a submissible jury case under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. (1970)) is applicable to a jury trial under the Jones Act. As stated in Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 500, 507, 1 L.Ed.2d 493, 499-500, 77 S.Ct. 443, 448-49:

"Judicial appraisal of the proofs to determine whether a jury question is presented is narrowly limited to the single inquiry whether, with reason, the conclusion may be drawn that negligence of the employer played any part at all in the injury or death. Judges are to fix their sights primarily to make that appraisal and, if that test is met, are bound to find that a case for the jury is made out whether or not the evidence allows the jury a choice of other probabilities. The statute expressly imposes liability upon the employer to pay damages for injury or death due `in whole or in part' to its negligence." (Emphasis added.)

In view of this test, we hold that there was clearly sufficient evidence to submit the question of defendant's negligence to the jury.

Evidence adduced at the trial indicated that plaintiff was ordered to go out in hazardous weather and check the running lights, and that there were no hatch covers covering the cargo boxes or hatches. The record also makes it apparent that the defendant was well aware that the running lights require periodic checking, and that it was necessary for a deckhand to personally check the lights when radio verification was not possible.

In Cordle v. Allied Chemical Corp. (6th Cir. 1962), 309 F.2d 821, the plaintiff fell into an open hatch while walking along the gunnels of a loaded barge. In the subsequent litigation based on the Jones Act, plaintiff alleged that the open hatch should have been closed since it was not in use at the time of his injury. After a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant appealed, contending there was an insufficient amount of evidence to submit the question of negligence to the jury. In affirming the decision the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the test set out above in Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 500, 1 L.Ed.2d 493, 77 S.Ct. 443, and recognized the following instruction as an appropriate statement of the law:

"Now, you are further instructed that an open hatch is not of itself negligence and the defendant through its agents, servants and employees had a right to open the hatch and leave it open for the purposes of its use in the operation of the barge. However, if you believe that ordinary care, under the conditions outlined in the evidence, required the hatch at that time to be closed and the defendant, its agents, servants and employees, failed to exercise such care and left the hatch open, if you believe it was open, and the plaintiff was injured by such failure to close the hatch, you should find for the plaintiff." 309 F.2d 821, 824.

The second issue raised by the defendant is whether the court erred in giving instructions 9, 11, and 12. Defendant apparently contends there was insufficient evidence introduced to warrant specific instruction number 9. However, there was ample evidence to support the giving of this instruction.

We need not consider the defendant's contention with regard to instruction number 11 for no objection was made at the instruction conference. It is well settled that the failure to object to an instruction at the conference on instructions waives any alleged error on appeal. Hocking v. Rehnquist, 44 ...


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