Supreme Court avoids defining dockworker

November 08, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A worker takes a boat across a river or a larger body of water, going to or from an on-land job. In a boating accident en route, the worker is injured. Is that employee a longshore worker or dockworker, entitled to special compensation? The Supreme Court gave an implied answer yesterday: maybe yes, maybe no.

In a brief order with no explanation, the court refused to clear up a dispute among lower federal courts on the legal status of workers who are hurt or die while commuting over navigable waters. As a result, those workers or their families will remain in doubt about their right to federal compensation benefits for job-related accidents.

A federal appeals court ruled in February that the key to whether such a worker is entitled to those benefits is where the accident occurs, not the site where the worker ordinarily performs his or her job. Whatever kind of work they do, workers who are injured "upon navigable waters" qualify, that court said.

That decision directly contradicts another federal court's decision in 1990, which said that injuries during incidental over-water travel to a job site on land are not covered by the dockworkers' law.

The legal issue affects only workers on the way to or from a job, because the law at issue is a workers' compensation law that applies to job-related accidents.

The Maritime Law Association of the United States urged the Supreme Court to clear up the dispute. If the latest ruling to broadly extend dockworker status is left undisturbed, the association said, a pizza delivery boy in Biloxi, Miss., would be covered if hurt while trying to deliver dinner to crew members on a vessel tied up at the dock, or a New Orleans messenger who takes a ferry across the Mississippi River to deliver a package would be covered if hurt during the brief voyage.

The latest ruling grew out of a fatal accident as a Louisiana man was being rescued from an offshore oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, in the face of a hurricane. The man, Theodore F. Randall, a mechanic, was being hauled from the rig by a rope sling to a rescue boat but could not hold on to the rope and fell into the water, where he drowned.

Because an offshore platform is legally considered an island, his job site was classified as land-based. His employer, Chevron USA Inc., and the owner of the rescue boat were sued by the man's widow and two children. The family sought compensation under the federal longshore and dockworker compensation law, more generous than they could have received under Louisiana workers' compensation.

The family won a verdict of nearly $1.5 million. Chevron contended that, because Mr. Randall's job clearly was land-based, he could not be considered a longshoreman or a dock hand. But the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, thus leaving the verdict intact.

The uncertainty over the federal law's coverage appears likely to continue unless the Supreme Court agrees to resolve the doubt in some future case.

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