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Billingsley v. Alberici Constructors, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

March 25, 2014

WESLEY BILLINGSLEY, as personal representative and next of kin of ROBERT R. BILLINGSLEY, deceased Plaintiff.
v.
ALBERICI CONSTRUCTORS, INC., et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

THOMAS B. RUSSELL, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court upon Defendants Alberici Constructors, Inc. (Alberici); URS Corporation (URS); URS Energy & Construction, Inc. (URS E&C); and Washington Group/Alberici Joint Venture's (Washington Group) Motion for Summary Judgment, (Docket No. 29), which, with leave of Court, has been joined in by Defendant United States, (Docket Nos. 36; 39). Plaintiff Wesley Billingsley, as personal representative and next of kin of Robert R. Billingsley, deceased, has responded, (Docket No. 32), and Defendants Alberici, URS, URS E&C, and Washington Group have replied, (Docket No. 40). This matter now is ripe for adjudication.

BACKGROUND

The essential facts pertinent to Defendants' instant Motion are largely undisputed. At the time of his death, Plaintiff's decedent, Robert R. Billingsley (Billingsley), was working at the Olmsted Dam Project on the Ohio River when he fell and was crushed between two barges. Billingsley was employed by Washington Group as a deckhand aboard the M/V LIPSCOMB, a tugboat owned by the United States. The United States also owned the barges with which Billingsley was working at the time of his death. Billingsley was unmarried and had no children or other dependents. Plaintiff Wesley Billingsley is Billingsley's father but was not dependent on Billingsley at the time of Billingsley's death.

Plaintiff brought this survival and wrongful death action on May 31, 2013, against a number of entities believed to be Billingsley's employer at the time of his death. Plaintiff alleges that Billingsley was a seaman for purposes of the Jones Act and seeks damages under both that Act and the general maritime law. Plaintiff alleges that Billingsley's death was caused by the Defendants' negligence as well as the unseaworthiness of the barge from which Billingsley fell. Plaintiff seeks the following damages: (1) Billingsley's predeath physical and mental pain and suffering, (2) the pecuniary value of Billingsley's estate, (3) "loss of the services, assistance, aid, society, companionship, familial relationship, and the love and affection of and/or from [Billingsley], " and (4) funeral and burial expenses. (Docket No. 1, at 6.)

STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). "[N]ot every issue of fact or conflicting inference presents a genuine issue of material fact." Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1477 (6th Cir. 1989). The test is whether the party bearing the burden of proof has presented a jury question as to each element in the case. Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 799 (6th Cir. 1996). The plaintiff must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence in support of his position; he must present evidence on which the trier of fact could reasonably find for him. Id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)). "[T]he mere existence of a colorable factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. A genuine dispute between the parties on an issue of material fact must exist to render summary judgment inappropriate." Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1177 (6th Cir. 1996), abrogated on other grounds by Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp., Inc., 681 F.3d 312 (6th Cir. 2012). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Still, "[a] party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by... citing to particular parts of materials in the record... or showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

DISCUSSION

As an initial matter, Plaintiff concedes that Defendants Alberici, URS, and URS E&C were not Billingsley's employer and may properly be dismissed from this action. (Docket No. 32, at 3-4.) As such, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff's claims against these Defendants and address its discussion here to the remaining Defendants, Washington Group and the United States.

Washington Group, joined by the United States, presently moves for summary judgment limiting the scope of Plaintiff's damages to Billingsley's predeath pain and suffering. In a related argument, Washington Group insists that Plaintiff is barred from asserting a wrongful death claim here because Plaintiff was not Billingsley's dependent at the time of Billingsley's death. Plaintiff's claims can best be addressed by delineating the several causes of action asserted. The Court reads Plaintiff's Complaint and Response as bringing this action based on two theories: (1) negligence, under both the Jones Act and the general maritime law; and (2) unseaworthiness, under the general maritime law. Accordingly, the Court will consider in turn each of Washington Group's arguments for summary judgment as they relate to these claims.

I.

Historically, the general maritime law once followed the common law rule that tort causes of action died with the injured person; thus, an injured sailor could bring an action for unseaworthiness or negligence, but his survivors had no remedy. See The Harrisburg, 119 U.S. 199 (1886). In 1920, Congress partially overruled The Harrisburg through the enactment of the Death on the High Seas Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30301-30308 (formerly codified at 46 U.S.C. app. §§ 761-768), which provided a wrongful death remedy for those killed on the high seas, and the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30104 (formerly codified at 46 U.S.C. app. § 688), which provided a wrongful death remedy for the death of a seaman.

The United States Supreme Court eventually overruled The Harrisburg in Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., holding that an action for wrongful death is available under the general maritime law "for death caused by violation of maritime duties." 398 U.S. 375, 409 (1970). Moragne involved a longshoreman killed while working aboard a vessel in navigable waters off the coast of Florida. The plaintiff, who was the decedent's widow, brought suit claiming damages based on theories of unseaworthiness and negligence. The Court permitted the plaintiff to proceed on an unseaworthiness theory, thereby recognizing a wrongful death remedy under the general maritime law for deaths occurring within state territorial waters. The Supreme Court since has extended the general maritime action for wrongful death recognized in Moragne to encompass negligence claims for the death of a maritime worker. Norfolk Shipbuilding & Drydock Corp. v. Garris, 532 U.S. 811, 820 (2001).

In Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., the Supreme Court addressed the type of damages recoverable under a general maritime law wrongful death claim. 498 U.S. 19 (1990). Miles involved the death of a Jones Act seaman aboard a vessel docked in state territorial waters. The seaman's mother and administratrix of his estate brought a negligence action under the Jones Act and an unseaworthiness action under the general maritime law. She sought damages for, among other things, loss of society resulting from the death of her son. Id. at 21-22. Noting that the Jones Act limited recovery to ...


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