It’s no secret that the spatial lines that once distinguished maritime causes of action from their terra firma cousins have been blurred. The law properly has followed industry trends and technological developments, eroding the well-defined coast line from which the nationally uniform body of admiralty law takes over from disparate state and common law. Maritime statutes and legal principles have come ashore to govern parties’ rights and liabilities in numerous circumstances.
While recent federal case law addressing intermodal cargo liability is seminal, one not-so-new example is applicability of Jones Act personal injury law to seamen who are injured while on landside leave. The theory is that mariners remain in the service of their vessel-operating employers even while they’re off the boat. They need R&R to work safely and effectively, i.e., to endure the rigors of their profession. Thus, they should be considered “still working” while on leave, and cases apply the Jones Act’s liability standards and remedies if an injury occurs during a seaman’s off time. In other words, even if they’re off the vessel, they’re still serving it.
Longshore workers, such as stevedore employees, performed considerable work on vessels, but aren’t attached to them in seagoing capacities. They have their own federal statute, the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA), which has been construed and refined by decades of case law. LHWCA extends to maritime employees who are disabled or killed in job-related accidents that occur seaside (“if the disability or death results from an injury occurring upon navigable waters of the United States”).
Originally enacted in 1953, the Outer Continental Shelf Land Act (OCSLA) addresses a wide variety of exploration, environmental and safety issues, one of which is the extension of LHWCA benefits to workers injured on the job. Typical scenarios involve offshore oil drilling platform employees, who aren’t Jones Act seamen, and at least arguably aren’t longshoremen either. When they are hurt or killed during operations, LHWCA entitlements kick in. These include, among other things, 50% or more of the deceased worker’s salary to his widow until she remarries.
OCSLA, by its own terms, has governance over “all submerged lands lying seaward and outside of the area of lands beneath navigable waters” outside the U.S.’s territorial jurisdiction. Its compensation provision extends LHWCA to “[the] disability or death of an employee resulting from any injury occurring as the result of operations conducted on the outer Continental Shelf” for certain stated purposes. But what if a worker is hurt/killed stateside while doing work needed for a Continental Shelf project?
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, comprising the western states, recently became the third federal appellate court to examine that question. In keeping with Jones Act concepts regarding land-based injuries, as well as federal decisions over the past decade addressing intermodal cargo liability, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Congress didn’t want OCSLA applied by a strictly spatial analysis. In other words, just because a worker isn’t on a drilling platform when he’s hurt doesn’t mean his injury wasn’t “as a result of operations on the Continental Shelf.”
Roustabout Juan Valladolid actually spent most of his time while employed with Pacific Operations Offshore on drilling platforms outside U.S. waters. On the day in question, he was assigned to the company’s onshore oil flocculation facility, where he was forklifting scrap metal removed from the platform so that it could be sold. Tragically, he was killed during this process. His widow filed an LHWCA claim.
Reversing a U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge and its Benefits Review Board, disagreeing with the Fifth Circuit, and siding with siding with the Third, the court ruled that there should be no “situs-of-injury requirement” for OCSLA’s applicability. The statute itself doesn’t require it, and an analysis of how LHWCA and similar law have been applied defeated the policy considerations Pacific Operations Offshore raised in response to the claim. True, the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation would leave certain land-based workers with better benefits than others just by virtue of their assigned job task, and would force companies to purchase higher insurance than they reasonably thought would be necessary. But hey, those things are always the case when you’re dealing with jurisdictional statutes designed to apply primarily, but not exclusively, in certain geographical areas.
While good arguments lie on both sides of the equation, the court’s conclusion is logical in light of current trends. Perhaps it’s not the answer, but the question, that should be changed. Has the time come to alter statutes designed to address the unique dangers maritime personnel once faced? Have advanced communications, safety mechanisms and other technologies rendered the Jones Act and LHWCA obsolete? Or at least in serious need of change? Eradication, or even modification, of such maritime mainstays would be enormously challenging and time consuming given their fixture within the maritime industry. For the time being, we should get used to salty law being applied on dry land.
Ref: Valladolid v. Pacific Operations Offshore, LLP, et al., 2010 WL 1929890 (9th Cir. 2010); OCSLA, 43 USC §1331, et seq.; LHWCA, 33 USC USC §901, et seq.
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