Muddying Murky Waters: The Fifth Circuit’s Indecision in Barker v. Hercules Offshore, Inc., Leaves Choice of Law Under OCSLA and Zone-of-Danger Theory Under Maritime Law Unanswered

Destinee Finnin | Note

Francis Barker stood a mere two feet from the pollution pan of a jacked-up drilling unit when the pan and his coworker Frank Broussard plunged 100 feet into the water below. Barker and Broussard were employed by a company that contracted with Hall-Houston Exploration II, L.P., to install a well casing on a jack-up rig that Hall-Houston obtained from Hercules Offshore, Inc. At the time the casing was to be installed, the drilling unit “was in the ‘jacked-up’ position, meaning that its hull and work deck were lifted completely out of the water” and that “[t]he legs of the rigs extended downward through the water into the seabed.” Barker and Broussard were unaware that the pollution pan was connected to the rig by welded straps, rather than welded directly to the rig as is customary when in the jacked-up configuration. While installing the casing, they were instructed to cut the straps supporting the pan. Not knowing that the straps were the only source of support, Broussard was standing on the pollution pan when the straps were cut. Barker had his back turned when the pan fell, but turned around in time to see Broussard strike a beam and fall to his death.

Barker filed suit against Hercules Offshore and Hall-Houston in Texas state court, alleging emotional distress and various physical injuries resulting from his alleged emotional injury. Barker asserted three causes of action, seeking damages for negligence, gross negligence, and wanton disregard for his and Broussard’s safety under general maritime law or, alternatively, under 33 U.S.C. § 905(b) of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). Barker also sought damages under Texas tort law to the extent that it supplemented or supplanted general maritime law. Based on the jurisdictional grant contained in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), the defendants removed the action to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Barker filed a motion to remand, arguing that maritime law provided the substantive rule of law and that removal under OCSLA was improper where any defendant was a resident of the venue state. Subsequently, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court denied Barker’s motion to remand and granted the defendants’ summary judgment. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that both the removal and summary judgment were proper given OCSLA’s original federal question jurisdiction and Barker’s inability to show a genuine dispute of material fact, regardless of the choice of law. Barker v. Hercules Offshore, Inc., 713 F.3d 208, 225, 2013 AMC 946, 970 (5th Cir. 2013).