An appellate court in the State of Washington just answered an interesting question about an intersection between the Longshore Act and the Jones Act.
The issue was “whether an injured maritime worker who accepts voluntary benefits and settles his claim under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA), when there is no adjudication of his status as a non-seaman under the LHWCA, is barred from pursuing claims against the vessel owner for personal injuries under the Jones Act.”
Apparently not. The court held “that, because Jeremy Gibson’s maritime worker status as a non-seaman was never adjudicated under the LHWCA and the compensation order did not expressly resolve this issue under the LHWCA . . . Gibson’s Jones Act claims are not barred, and election of remedies, equitable estoppel, and collateral estoppel do not apply.”
The facts of the case are fairly simple. The injured worker fell through a hatch while working on a crane barge moored at his employer’s dock. A LHWCA claim was filed and benefits were paid for roughly a year-and-a-half. Then, the injured worker and the employer settled the injured worker’s LHWCA claim.
Longshore settlements are controlled by Section 8(i) of the LHWCA. See 33 U.S.C. § 908(i) (1984). Section 8(i) states:
Whenever the parties to any claim for compensation under this Act, including survivors benefits, agree to a settlement, the deputy commissioner or administrative law judge shall approve the settlement within thirty days unless it is found to be inadequate or procured by duress. Such settlement may include future medical benefits if the parties so agree. No liability of any employer, carrier, or both for medical, disability, or death benefits shall be discharged unless the application for settlement is approved by the deputy commissioner or administrative law judge. If the parties to the settlement are represented by counsel, then agreements shall be deemed approved unless specifically disapproved within thirty days after submission for approval.
Every Longshore settlement is settled according to Section 8(i). In Mr. Gibson’s case, the settlement was approved by a District Director for the Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation. This is completely normal.
And the compensation order issued by the District Director approving the settlement was completely normal, too. The order identified the date of injury, the liability of the insurer, the voluntary agreement to settle, the statute and regulations applicable to LHWCA settlements, and then the following statement:
Pursuant to Section 8(i) of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, the District Director having reviewed the attached agreement and stipulation by and between the interested parties hereby approves the agreed settlement. This approval effects a final disposition of the claim, discharging the liability of the employer and insurance carrier in accordance with the terms of the settlement. The employer and insurance carrier are hereby ordered to pay all amounts due.
Here’ s where the facts get interesting. Three months after the settlement was approved by the District Director, Mr. Gibson filed a Jones Act claim, alleging he was both a land-based and a sea-based maritime worker. The employer moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that the LHWCA order precluded his Jones Act claim. Mr. Gibson responded that the “compensation order did not resolve his maritime worker status because his status was never adjudicated in a formal hearing under the LHWCA.” The district court agreed with the employer; but not the appellate court.
The appellate court sided with Mr. Gibson. On the one hand, a maritime worker is considered a non-seaman covered by the LHWCA or a seaman covered by the Jones Act. On the other, the acts overlap in practice and “injured maritime workers, whose work is both sea-based and land-based, face a ‘zone of uncertainty’ regarding the relationship between the acts.”
But did the Longshore settlement order definitively find that Mr. Gibson was not a Jones Act seaman? To answer that question, the Washington appellate court looked at the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Sw. Marine, Inc. v. Gizoni, 502 U.S. 81 (1991). In Gizoni, the Supreme Court said:
It is by now “universally accepted” that an employee who receives voluntary payments under the LHWCA without a formal award is not barred from subsequently seeking relief under the Jones Act. This is so, quite obviously, because the question of coverage has never actually been litigated. Moreover, the LHWCA clearly does not comprehend such a preclusive effect, as it specifically provides that any amounts paid to an employee for the same injury, disability, or death pursuant to the Jones Act shall be credited against any liability imposed by the LHWCA.
Basically, if there wasn’t a formal adjudication regarding seaman status, then voluntary receipt of Longshore benefits does not preclude a subsequent Jones Act lawsuit. There is support for this proposition in both Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit caselaw. For example, in Figueroa v. Campbell Indus., 45 F.3d 311 (9th Cir. 1995), the Ninth Circuit noted that “receipt of a LHWCA award, which is statutorily limited to compensation for medical expenses and lost wages, would not preclude Jones Act claims for pain and suffering.”
Here, the Washington appellate court held “that because Gibson’s maritime worker status as a non-seaman was never adjudicated under the LHWCA and the compensation order did not expressly resolve that issue under the LHWCA, Gibson’s Jones Act claims are not precluded by the LHWCA settlement.”
Gibson v. Am. Constr. Co., Inc., — P.3d —-, 2017 WL 4273903 (Wash. Ct. App. 2017).