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Harrington v. Atlantic Sounding Co.

September 11, 2007

FREDERICK J. HARRINGTON JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
ATLANTIC SOUNDING CO., INC., WEEKS MARINE, INC., AND THE MV CANDACE, HER ENGINES, EQUIPMENT, AND TACKLE, IN REM, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gershon, United States District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Frederick J. Harrington Jr. ("Harrington") brings this action against defendants Atlantic Sounding Co., Inc. ("Atlantic Sounding") and Weeks Marine, Inc. ("Weeks Marine"), pursuant to the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688, for injuries sustained as a result of defendants' negligence while he was employed as a seaman aboard the defendant vessel MV CANDACE ("CANDACE"). Plaintiff also asserts claims under general maritime law for unseaworthiness, maintenance and cure, and lost wages. Defendants seek to dismiss the complaint, or, in the alternative, compel arbitration and stay the instant action. Defendants also move to dismiss the in rem action against the CANDACE for lack of jurisdiction.

By order dated January 12, 2007, the court deferred ruling on defendants' motion pending an evidentiary hearing on the validity of the post-injury arbitration agreement between plaintiff and his employer. Based upon plaintiff's physical condition, the evidentiary hearing was delayed until July 18, 2007. At the hearing, plaintiff presented his own testimony and that of Thomas Langan ("Langan"), Corporate Risk Manager for Weeks Marine. Defendants presented testimony from Teresa Olivo ("Olivo"), Corporate Claims Manager for Weeks Marine, and, by way of deposition, Coral LaFrance ("LaFrance"), Assistant Manager, Mayflower Savings Bank, who is a licensed Notary Public. The following constitutes my findings of fact and conclusions of law, pursuant to Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

I. FACTS

Harrington is a fifty-three year old former seaman. He was employed as a deckhand by Weeks Marine*fn1 and earned approximately $180.00 per day. Weeks Marine considered plaintiff a good employee, and his captain thought highly of him. On April 10, 2005, Harrington injured his back while working aboard the CANDACE, a tugboat owned and operated by Weeks Marine. He left the tugboat in May 2005 and returned to Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts to live with his elderly father. At around the same time, plaintiff began receiving maintenance payments in the amount of $20.00 per day from Weeks Marine. The company also paid all of the medical expenses plaintiff incurred as a result of his injury.

Harrington was diagnosed with herniated discs and was told that he required lumbar surgery. As Corporate Risk Manager for Weeks Marine, Langan was responsible for reviewing plaintiff's medical records prior to authorizing any medical procedures. Harrington testified that, prior to the surgery, he was in excruciating pain and was taking Valium, Percocet, and Vicodin. He was confused, depressed, and angry, and the medication did little to alleviate his symptoms. Harrington was also drinking heavily, approximately "a fifth a day" of vodka. In fact, he admitted to struggling with alcohol abuse and having been in an out of rehabilitation programs on at least ten to twelve occasions.*fn2

On July 11, 2005, seven days prior to his lumbar surgery, Harrington received a Claim Arbitration Agreement ("Agreement") form in the mail from Weeks Marine. The Agreement states that defendants "are obligated to pay maintenance and cure, . . . [but] are not currently responsible or liable for any other damages under general maritime law, the Jones Act or any other applicable law." In exchange for Harrington's agreement to arbitrate all claims, defendants agreed to advance plaintiff sixty percent (60%) of his gross wages until he was declared fit for duty, reached maximum medical improvement, or October 10, 2005, whichever came first. The Agreement provides that the "advances will be made twice monthly and will be credited against any settlement . . . or against any future arbitration award." The Agreement also states that "[a]ny filing fee, up to $750.00 and any deposit for compensation of the arbitrators shall be advanced by [defendants], subject to subsequent allocation." The final paragraph of the Agreement states:

Other than the promises contained in this agreement, I have been given no other promises to induce me to sign this Claim Arbitration Agreement. I have not been coerced in any way into signing this agreement. I have signed this agreement knowingly and willingly.

When he read the Agreement, Harrington thought that, because he was a good employee, defendants were going to pay him sixty percent (60%) of his wages until he was able to return to work. Prior to receiving the Agreement, plaintiff, on various occasions, had communicated via telephone and written correspondence with employees of Weeks Marine, including Teresa Olivo, Corporate Claims Manager, and Rick Devine, Towing Manager. At no point did any Weeks Marine employee explain the terms of the Agreement to plaintiff, or inform him that it was a legal document and that he should seek the advice of an attorney prior to signing it. Nor did anyone from Weeks Marine advise Harrington of the legal rights that he was giving up by entering into the Agreement.

Harrington had lumbar surgery on July 18, 2005. Following his discharge from the hospital, he returned to his father's home where he spent several months recuperating from his surgery. While recovering, plaintiff was taking OxyContin and Vicodin for pain, but he also continued to drink heavily. On July 23, 2005, five days after his surgery, Harrington's father drove him to the Mayflower Bank to sign the Agreement and have it notarized. Plaintiff recalled being in "tough shape" when he went to the bank that day because, in addition to having taken pain medication, he had had "a couple of drinks." Before notarizing the Agreement, LaFrance, the Notary Public, read the acknowledgment aloud and asked Harrington if he understood what he was signing. He responded that he understood. LaFrance observed that Harrington had to be assisted by his father when sitting down and standing up, and he also appeared to be in pain. She could not readily discern whether he was intoxicated or in any way impaired; however, she insisted that she would not have notarized the Agreement if that had been the case.

When the Agreement expired in October 2005, Harrington was still unable to return to work. He contacted Weeks Marine to request that the company continue paying him sixty percent (60%) of his gross wages until he was fit to return to duty. In December 2005, defendants sent Harrington the Addendum-Claim Arbitration Agreement ("Addendum Agreement"), which, if he signed, would extend payments until January 10, 2006. On December 8, 2005, Harrington executed the Addendum Agreement, which set forth the same terms and conditions as the original Agreement. When plaintiff went to the bank to have the Addendum Agreement notarized, LaFrance followed the same procedure that she had followed on July 23, 2005. She read the acknowledgment aloud and asked plaintiff if he understood what he was signing. He confirmed that he did. With respect to Harrington's condition on December 8, 2005, LaFrance said that he appeared to be in pain, but she could not tell if he was drunk or on drugs because she "is not around those type of people" so she "couldn't judge it." In her deposition testimony, she also noted that Harrington had been to the bank on three separate occasions and each time, he appeared disheveled and unkept. LaFrance said that, in general, Harrington was not a conversant individual and, when he did speak, he was incoherent.

After he signed the Addendum Agreement, defendants terminated Harrington's employment effective January 27, 2006. Shortly thereafter, Harrington, for the first time, sought the advice of an attorney, who brought this suit for personal injury. There is no challenge to plaintiff's termination.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Burden of ...


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