Florida Workers' Comp vs. Longshoreman and Harbor Workers' Compensation: Which applies?

Living in Florida gives one an excellent opportunity to live and work near water. And, as with any occupation, those jobs on or near navigable waters will sometimes involve injuries to workers. When such a worker is injured, there is always the question of whether the injuries will be covered under the Florida workers’ compensation laws or the federal Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act.

You may be asking, “What difference does it make?” While both sets of laws provide for medical treatment and certain disability payments to the injured worker, that may be where the similarities end. The definition of “injury”, the burden of proving the extent of the injury related to the work accident, and the specific type/amount of benefits that are available can be very different depending on the facts of the case. For instance, if it is important to the injured worker to be able to choose his or her own doctor, then the worker will need to prove entitlement to Longshoreman coverage. Florida workers’ compensation law gives this right to the insurance company.

Often times, there are arguments in a case that can support coverage by either set of laws. So, how does one decide whether a claim should be covered by Florida work comp versus Longshoreman law? A recent case decided by a Florida Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) gives some insight into the answer to this question.

The case is Huelsman v. W.F. Davis Marine Const. (OJCC Case No. 16-001455RLD, 9/30/16) and it involved a construction worker building a pavilion on dry land that was to be eventually connected to an existing dock reaching out over a bayou. When scaffolding broke, the worker fell and sustained multiple serious injuries including a neck fracture. He was airlifted to the hospital and underwent surgery the next day. Medical treatment was ongoing and extensive, and the recovery time for his injuries resulted in long periods of disability. There was no dispute that the injury should be covered and that such coverage would result in large amounts of money being paid out for both medical expenses and the temporary disability benefits to the worker while he recovered. But, who should pay this claim and what law should apply?

The JCC reviewed the facts of the case and found Florida workers’ compensation law would apply in this case. Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation is intended to cover an employee injured while working “upon the navigable waters of the United States (including an adjoining pier, wharf, dry dock, terminal, building way, marine railway, or other adjoining area customarily used by an employer loading, unloading, repairing, or building a vessel.” Title 33 U.S.C. s 903(a). Additionally, an employee under Longshoreman law is defined as “an person engaged in maritime employment, including any longshoreman or other person engaged in longshoring operations and any Harbor worker including a ship repairman, shipbuilder and shipbreaker, but such term does not include a master or member of a crew of any vessel, or an person engaged by the master to load or unload or repair any small vessel under eighteen tons net.” Title 33 U.S.C. s 902(3).

Read together, the judge found these federal statutes provide a two prong test for whether a case should be covered under the Longshoreman’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. First, the site of the injury must be upon navigable waters, including any adjoining pier, and second, the job of the injured person must be maritime in nature. (For a more in depth discussion about this two prong test in another case, see Hernandez v. Mike Cruz Machine

Shop, 389 S.2d 1251 (Fla 1st DCA 1980 found at http://www.leagle.com/decision/19801640389So2d1251_11370/HERNANDEZ%20v.%20MIKE%20CRUZ%20MACH.%20SHOP.)

Applying this two prong test to the facts of the Huelsman case, the JCC found the site where the accident happened was not on navigable waters or any adjoining pier. Although the bayou was indisputably navigable waters, Mr. Huelsman was on scaffolding building a pavilion on dry land away from the dock. The fact that the pavilion was to be eventually connected by walkway to the dock extending over the navigable waters was found insufficient to satisfy the first prong. Although other projects being performed by the employer were on the same waterway and had been performed from company owned barges, Mr. Huelsman was not working on a barge or dock, or even near the dock at that time of his accident.

Since the work was found to not have been performed on navigable waterway, the next test is whether Mr. Huelsman was engaged in maritime employment at the time of his accident. “Aside from employees engaged in shipbuilding, ship repair or ship-breaking, …the general category of coverage as a harbor- worker as including employees directly involved in the construction, repair, alteration or maintenance of harbor facilities (which includes docks, piers, wharves and adjacent area used in loading, unloading, repair or construction of ships.”) Kerwin Temple v. Global Construction & Equipment, 2012 WL 11944408. The JCC found the job being performed by Mr. Huelsman did not fall into this category of work.

Since accident/injury is not covered under the Longshoremans’ and Harbor Workers’ Act, Mr. Huelsman, for better or worse, finds himself in the Florida Workers’ Compensation system and all that this entails.

If you have been injured on the job and have questions about your rights, contact Syfrett, Dykes & Furr for a free consultation. (850) 795-4979.

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