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Johnson v. Adm/Growmark River Systems Inc.

April 06, 1998

THOMAS E. JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ADM/GROWMARK RIVER SYSTEMS, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Welch

In this case brought under the Jones Act (46 U.S.C.A. §688 (West Supp. 1997)), we are asked to determine whether the circuit court of Pulaski County properly entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant, ADM/Growmark River Systems, Inc., and against plaintiff, Thomas E. Johnson, finding as a matter of law that plaintiff was not a "seaman" within the meaning of the Jones Act because he had no connection to a "vessel in navigation".

The Jones Act provides a cause of action in negligence to any "seaman" who suffers personal injury in the course of his employment. Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 132 L. Ed. 2d 314, 328, 115 S. Ct. 2172 (1995). The Jones Act, however, does not define the term seaman, and the question often arises whether a maritime employee is a "seaman", who is entitled to recovery under the generous provisions of the Jones Act, or a land-based maritime worker, who is entitled to recovery only under the Longshore and Harbor Worker's Compensation Act (LHWCA) (33 U.S.C.A. §901 et seq. (West 1986)). The LHWCA provides scheduled compensation, and the exclusive remedy, for injury to a broad range of land-based maritime workers. Chandris, 515 U.S. 347, 132 L. Ed. 2d at 329, 115 S. Ct. 2172.

Drawing the distinction between those maritime workers who should qualify as seamen under the more generous provision of the Jones Act and those who should not has been the source of much litigation (Chandris, 515 U.S. 347, 132 L. Ed. 2d at 329, 115 S. Ct. 2172), and it is the source of the litigation before us in this appeal. What is clear, however, is that under the Jones Act the term seaman does not include land-based workers. Chandris, 515 U.S. 347, 132 L. Ed. 2d at 331, 115 S. Ct. 2172.

"With the passage of the LHWCA, Congress established a clear distinction between land-based and sea-based maritime workers. The latter, who owe their allegiance to a vessel and not solely to a land-based employer, are seamen." McDermott International v. Wilander, 498 U.S. 337, 347, 112 L. Ed. 2d 866, 877, 111 S. Ct. 807 (1991).

While the Jones Act itself does not define who constitutes a seaman for its purposes, the courts have attempted to give some guidance. In Chandris, 515 U.S. 347, 132 L. Ed. 2d at 337, 115 S. Ct. 2172, the Supreme Court found two essential requirements for seaman status: (1) the employee's duties must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission and (2) a seaman must have a connection to a vessel in navigation that is substantial in terms of both its duration and its nature. It is the second element which the circuit court of Pulaski County found lacking in the case at bar. Because that court found as a matter of law that plaintiff was not employed on a "vessel in navigation" and therefore was not a seaman, it granted summary judgment in favor of defendant.

The question whether an employee is a seaman within the meaning of the Jones Act is a mixed question of law and fact. Chandris, 515 U.S. 347, 132 L. Ed. 2d at 338, 115 S. Ct. 2172. When the underlying facts are established and the rule of law is undisputed, the issue is whether the facts meet the statutory standard. McDermott International v. Wilander, 498 U.S. 337, 356, 112 L. Ed. 2d 866, 883, 111 S. Ct. 807 (1991). Because the statutory terms are at issue, their interpretation is a question of law and it is the court's duty to define the appropriate standard. Chandris, 515 U.S. 347, 132 L. Ed. 2d at 338, 115 S. Ct. 2172. Then, if reasonable persons, applying the proper legal standard as defined by the court, could differ as to whether an employee was a seaman, it is a question of fact for the jury. Chandris, 515 U.S. 347, 132 L. Ed. 2d at 338, 115 S. Ct. 2172. The underlying inquiry whether a vessel is or is not "in navigation" for Jones Act purposes is a fact-intensive question that is normally for the jury to decide, not the court. Chandris, 515 U.S. 347, 132 L. Ed. 2d at 340, 115 S. Ct. 2172. Removing the issue from the jury's consideration is only appropriate where the facts and the law will reasonably support only one conclusion. Chandris, 515 U.S. 347, 132 L. Ed. 2d at 340, 115 S. Ct. 2172. Nonetheless, summary judgment is mandated where the facts and the law will reasonably support only one Conclusion. Wilander, 498 U.S. at 356, 112 L. Ed. 2d at 883, 111 S. Ct. 807; Harbor Tug & Barge Co. v. Papai, ___ U.S. ___, 137 L. Ed. 2d 800, 117 S. Ct. 1535 (1997).

Thus, while the question of whether a person is a seaman is normally a question of fact for the jury, the issue may be resolved by summary judgment where the undisputed material facts establish as a matter of law that an individual is not a Jones Act seaman. Snelling v. Elmer Logsdon River Construction Co., 120 Ill. App. 3d 80, 83 (1983). Of course, we review the decision of the trial court de novo. Outboard Marine Corp. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., 154 Ill. 2d 90, 102 (1992).

The material facts presented to the trial court are undisputed. Defendant operated a facility on the Ohio River. The facility handled grain pellets and other grain products. Products came into defendant's facility by railcar and truck. They were then carried by conveyor belt out to defendant's dock on the river, where they were loaded into barges belonging to numerous different companies.

Defendant's dock consisted of two floating barges that were moored between three round, cylindrical "cells" driven into the river bottom. These barges had been originally constructed to transport cargo over water and had previously been used for that purpose. They had been retired from service because they were old and were no longer capable of carrying cargo. The hulls of the barges were old and worn, and the cost to restore them to a condition suitable to carry cargo would have exceeded the value of the barges.

The barges floated between the cells so that they could ride up and down with the rise and fall of the river. However, steel framework welded to the ends of the barges and attached to the cells prevented them from moving upstream, downstream, or from side-to-side, and they could not float away from the loading area. The barges provided a flat surface for the various customer's barges to be tied to for loading, and they made it safer for defendant's employees to get on and off the customer barges from the dock at various stages of the river.

In addition to the steel framework welded to the ends of the barges to hold them in place, defendant had made numerous modifications to the barges. The doors on top of the cargo compartments, into which cargo would normally have been loaded, had been welded shut so that no one could fall inside and be injured. A yellow steel catwalk had been constructed between the two barges so that defendant's employees could walk from one barge to the other. A cable pulley system was welded to the deck of the barges so the tower operator could adjust the position of customer barges during loading. A trailer had been mounted on top of one of the barges to store tools. If defendant had wanted to restore the barges for use to carry cargo, it would have been necessary to remove all of these modifications.

Defendant had never used the barges to carry cargo. On only two occasions had the barges ever been moved. At one time, the river had flooded and caused the barges to float up near the top of the mooring cells, which would have allowed the barges to drift away. Therefore, the barges had been temporarily moved away. On a second occasion, defendant had one of the barges removed from its mooring for repairs. Neither barge was used to carry any cargo on either of these occasions. The beams securing the barges into place on the mooring cells had once been welded to the ends of the barges, but after having to remove the barges from the cells, they were modified so that they were held on with removable pins to facilitate easy transportation.

The barges were not essential to the process of loading grain into customer barges, as defendant had continued loading operations at the time when one of the barges had been removed. The barges simply provided a platform on which the workers could safely stand while working on the customer barges.

Defendant's facility was operated by a total of about 21 employees. The facility operated seven days per week on three shifts. Each shift had a tower operator (who ran the conveyor controls), a lead man, and two laborers. The time to load each customer's barge varied from three hours to as much as eight hours. Roughly 80% ...


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