Federal Workers’ Compensation Statute Preempts Plaintiff’s Negligence Claims; Shipyard Defendants Win Summary Judgment

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, October 14, 2020

This case arises out of plaintiff William Hulin, Sr.’s exposure to asbestos when he worked as a ship fitter, laborer, and tacker for Avondale from January 1954 to May 1973. In July 2019, the plaintiff was diagnosed with lung cancer. He sued a number of defendants, including the Avondale Interests, in state court on November 12, 2019. The case was removed to district court on March 17, 2020. The plaintiff alleged only negligence claims against the defendants under Louisiana law.

The defendants filed for summary judgment arguing the plaintiff’s state-law negligence claims are preempted by the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA), 33 U.S.C. § 901, et seq. The plaintiff argues that the LHWCA does not apply to his injuries and, even if it does, LHWCA does not preempt his negligence claims.

Summary judgment is warranted when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (per curiam). “When assessing whether a dispute to any material fact exists, [the Court] consider[s] all of the evidence in the record but refrain[s] from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Delta & Pine Land Co. v. Nationwide Agribusiness Ins, 530 F.3d 395, 398-99 (5th Cir. 2008).

The LHWCA is a federal statutory workers’ compensation statute providing covered maritime workers with “medical, disability, and survivor benefits for work-related injuries and death.” MMR Constructors, Inc. v. Dir. Office of Workers’ Comp. Programs, 954 F.3d 259, 262 (5th Cir. 2020) . Before 1972, the statute covered only workers on “navigable waters of the United States (including any dry dock).” Id. (citing 33 U.S.C. § 903(a) (pre-1972)). But, in 1972, Congress “extend[ed] the LHWCA landward.” Sun Ship, Inc. v. Pennsylvania, 447 U.S. 715, 719 (1980). In determining which version of LHWCA applies here, the court uses the “date of injury.” Castorina v. Lykes Bros. S.S. Co., 758 F.2d 1025, 1029 (5th Cir. 1985). Under Castorina, the plaintiff’s injury is deemed to arise on the date it manifested, i.e. the date of injury. In this case, 2019.

Next the court determined whether the “status” and “situs” requirements of the LHWCA are met here. The “status” requirement limits application of the LHWCA to “traditional maritime occupations.” See New Orleans Depot Servs. v. Dir., Office of Worker’s Comp. Programs, 718 F.3d 384, 389 (5th Cir. 2013); see 33 U.S.C. § 902(3). The Fifth Circuit has found that the status test is satisfied when the person is “directly involved in an ongoing shipbuilding operation.” Ingalls Shipbuilding Corp. v. Morgan, 551 F.2d 61, 62 (5th Cir. 1977).

The court found that all the plaintiff’s testimony indicated that he worked as a “harbor-worker” when his exposures occurred, satisfying the status test. As for the situs test, the court found that the Avondale shipyards, located on and adjacent to the navigable waters of the United States, is a covered situs. Since the plaintiff’s status falls within the coverage of the LHWCA, and his injuries occurred on a covered situs, the plaintiff could have brought a claim under the LHWCA. Therefore, the court analyzed whether the LHWCA preempted the plaintiff’s state law negligence claims.

The question here is whether the LHWCA’s exclusivity provision has preemptive effect over state law tort claims. The exclusivity provision states as follows: “The liability of an employer prescribed in section 904 of this title shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability of such employer to the employee, his legal representative, husband or wife, parents, dependents, next of kin, and anyone otherwise entitled to recover damages from such employer at law or in admiralty on account of such injury or death . . . .” 33 U.S.C. § 905(a).

Federal law can preempt state law in three ways: (1) express preemption, where Congress expresses an explicit intent to preempt state law; (2) field preemption, where the “sheer comprehensiveness” of the federal scheme implies congressional intent to preempt state regulation in the area; or (3) conflict preemption, where the state law either directly conflicts with the federal law or interferes with the regulatory program established by Congress. Hetzel v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 50 F.3d 360, 363 (5th Cir. 1995).

Here, there is conflict preemption. The Fifth Circuit has made clear that, if the LHWCA covers an employee’s injury, his only remedy lies in workers’ compensation. Any other result would conflict with LHWCA’s text and undermine the quid pro quo that Congress enacted. For these reasons, the court found that the LHWCA preempts the plaintiff’s state law negligence claims.

Accordingly, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.