Seamen Must Seek Recovery Elsewhere: Only an Actual Employer, Not a Payroll Processor, Is Vicariously Liable for Employee

Note by Amanda L. Crawford

James Johnson was working as a superintendent on an offshore drilling rig when Nigerian gunmen boarded the rig and shot him in the leg. Johnson, who was left without medical attention until the next morning, was hospitalized for months and endured several surgeries and a muscle transplant. To recover for his injuries, Johnson brought suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana for negligence under the Jones Act and for unseaworthiness, negligence, and maintenance and cure under general maritime law. Johnson claimed that his injury was caused by the negligence of rig hands, employed by GlobalSantaFe Offshore Services, Inc. (GSF), who left a ball valve in front of the rig stairs. Due to the placement of the ball valve, the rig hands were unable to raise the stairs as the gunmen approached, allowing the gunmen to gain access to the rig and, ultimately, to injure Johnson.

Johnson's appeal was limited to his claim of negligence under general maritime law against GSF. Johnson originally brought suit against Transocean, Ltd., and several related entities and later added the claim against GSF. The appellate court recognized the complicated legal relationship between these entities, noting that GSF was one of “over 360 direct and indirect subsidiaries” of Transocean, Ltd., and that GSF's relationship with the owner of the rig, GlobalSantaFe International Drilling, Inc., was unclear.

Johnson argued that GSF was liable for the rig hands' actions under a theory of vicarious liability. GSF moved for summary judgment on the ground that it was merely a paymaster, and not an employer, of the rig hands. The district court granted GSF's motion, disposing of Johnson's negligence and unseaworthiness claims. Johnson then appealed the grant of summary judgment solely on his negligence claim against GSF. Both parties agreed that the rig hands were negligent, but disputed whether the rig hands were acting as employees of GSF. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that no reasonable jury could find that GSF was the rig hands' employer and that, therefore, GSF could not be vicariously liable for the acts that caused Johnson's injuries. Johnson v. GlobalSantaFe Offshore Services, Inc., 799 F.3d 317, 324, 2015 AMC 2241, 2250 (5th Cir. 2015).

About the Author

J.D. candidate 2017, Tulane University Law School; B.S. 2011, Pennsylvania State University.


90 Tul. L. Rev. 985 (2016)