Plaintiffs’ State Law Tort Claims against Employer and Insurers Preempted by LHWCA

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, June 16, 2022

In this asbestos matter, the plaintiffs allege that James Becnel was exposed to asbestos at the Avondale Shipyards in 1965. Recently, several defendants filed summary judgment motions to dismiss the plaintiffs’ state law tort claims, including Becnel’s employer and its insurers. The defendants alleged that the plaintiffs’ state law tort claims were preempted by the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). Ultimately, the court agreed as “the LHWCA preempts a plaintiff’s occupational exposure claims against his employer.”

First, the court determined that the version of the LHWCA as the Act existed in 2019 governed as Becnel’s injury manifested on the date of diagnosis under Castorina v. Lykes Bros. S.S. Co. The LHWCA covers Becnel’s injuries as long as the status and situs requirements were met. Under the status requirement, a maritime worker’s injuries are covered if the person is “directly involved in an ongoing shipbuilding operation.” Here, the court found that Becnel’s work as a tacker and shipfitter on vessels and scaffolding outside of ships at Avondale met the status test. Becnel’s work also met the situs requirement, as all of Avondale’s facilities were adjacent to the Mississippi River, a navigable waterbody of the United States. Since Becnel’s work met both the status and situs requirements, the court found that “the plaintiffs could have brought their claims under the LHWCA.” As such, the plaintiffs’ state law tort claims were preempted as the LHWCA “provides the exclusive remedy for injuries caused by the negligence or wrongful act of an officer or employee of the employer.”

While the LHWCA is silent as to the immunization of insurers from state tort law claims, the court set forth that as per Fifth Circuit precedent, “numerous provisions of the Act and the spirit of the Act as a whole, [which] equat[e] the insurer with the employer, negate any intent to hold the insurer liable to suit for damages as a third person.” As the court held that the LHWCA preempts the state tort law claims, the court dismissed those claims against Avondale, its executive officers, and insurers. Thus, the court granted summary judgment on this issue.

Read the full decision here