When maritime workers in New York are injured in on-the-job accidents or develop illnesses after being exposed to toxic substances in the workplace, they can file workers’ compensation claims because they are covered by the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. However, U.S. Supreme Court rulings have created situations where it is unclear whether state or federal workers’ compensation law applies in maritime worker injury and illness cases. Experts call these areas “twilight zones.” On June 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit cleared up this ambiguity when it ruled that federal maritime workers’ compensation law supplements, but does not supplant, state law.
The case involved a man who worked as a maritime worker between 1969 and 1977 and was diagnosed with mesothelioma in March 2020. In May 2020, the man filed a negligence lawsuit against his employer in a Louisiana court. He alleged that he was exposed to asbestos while working on U.S. Navy destroyers in the Avondale shipyard because his employer failed to provide him with a safe working environment. The man filed a negligence lawsuit and not a worker’s compensation claim because mesothelioma was not a covered injury under Louisiana’s workers’ compensation program until 1975. The man was exposed to asbestos and dust containing asbestos before 1975, and the workers’ compensation rules in Minnesota state that mesothelioma injuries occur when workers are exposed to dangerous substances. The man passed away in October 2020.
Case transferred to federal court
The man’s former employer was able to get the case transferred to a U.S. District Court because the man developed mesothelioma while working on U.S. Navy ships. The company then filed for a summary judgement seeking the dismissal of the man’s negligence lawsuit because his state law claim was preempted by the LHWCA. The motion was granted, and the man’s children and surviving spouse filed an appeal. The litigation is considered a case of first impression because it presents a legal issue dealing with maritime worker injuries that has not been decided before.
Clarifying an ambiguous situation
This ruling was needed because prior court rulings had created uncertainty for employers and maritime workers. Maritime workers should welcome the ruling because it allows them to pursue tort claims against their employers in state courts in certain situations.