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Morris v. Owensboro Grain Co., LLC

Supreme Court of Kentucky

August 29, 2013

JASON E. MORRIS APPELLANT
v.
OWENSBORO GRAIN CO., LLC; HONORABLE JEANIE OWEN MILLER, ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE; AND WORKERS' COMPENSATION BOARD APPELLEES

ON APPEAL FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2011-CA-000924-WC WORKERS'COMPENSATION NO. 10-00462

COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT, JASON E. MORRIS: Daniel Caslin.

COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE, OWENSBORO GRAIN CO., LLC: Bonnie Jo Hoskins, Carl Martin Brashear.

OPINION

Appellant, Jason E. Morris, appeals from a decision of the Court of Appeals which held that compensability for his work-related injuries fell exclusively within the purview of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. §901 et. seq. ("LHWCA"), and that there was no concurrent jurisdiction under Kentucky's Workers' Compensation Act. Morris makes the following arguments on appeal: 1) that the Court of Appeals erred by finding that the LHWCA is a "rule of liability for injury or death" provided by the laws of the United States under KRS 342.650(4); and 2) that even if his work-related injuries fell exclusively within the purview of the LHWCA, his employer, Owensboro Grain Company, maintained voluntary Kentucky workers' compensation coverage which allows him to bring his claim. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the Court of Appeals.

Owensboro Grain is a soybean and grain processing refinery located on the Ohio River. Two docks beside the processing plant are connected to the riverbank by catwalks. Barges deliver raw materials to the plant's docks and ship the finished products of meal and pellet feed for livestock. Morris, an Owensboro Grain employee since 1998, estimated that he spent sixty percent of his time at work maintaining and monitoring the machinery which makes the pellet feed and forty percent of his time performing deckhand duties, such as hooking winch cables to barges so that they could be maneuvered at the docks.

Morris suffered his work-related injury in 2008 while performing deckhand duties. After Morris had finished loading items onto a barge, he slipped and began to fall while climbing from the dock onto a platform. Morris caught himself by grabbing an overhead beam, but this caused him to dislocate his shoulder. An orthopedic surgeon examined Morris and determined that surgery would be necessary to repair the damage. Following surgery, Morris remained off work for approximately three weeks. After a period of recovery, Morris was released to full-duty work by his surgeon without any restrictions.

Morris's injury was reported under the LHWCA, a federal statutory scheme which provides compensation for injured maritime employees. He subsequently received benefits from Owensboro Grain's LHWCA insurance policy. Morris, however, testified that he did not know what type of insurance coverage Owensboro Grain maintained or that he was receiving LHWCA benefits. In 2010, Morris filed a claim for Kentucky workers' compensation benefits. Owensboro Grain denied the claim, asserting that Morris's injury was not covered under Kentucky's Workers' Compensation Act.

Following a hearing, the ALJ found that the LHWCA is a rule of liability for injury or death provided by the laws of the United States under KRS 342.650(4) and that since Morris's injury fell under the LHWCA, Kentucky had no subject matter jurisdiction over his claim. She also found there was no evidence Owensboro Grain provided voluntary coverage to Morris under Kentucky's Workers' Compensation Act. Accordingly, the ALJ dismissed Morris's claim.

The Workers' Compensation Board affirmed the ALJ in a two to one decision. The dissenting Board member believed that Morris's injury fell within the "twilight zone" rule, which allows for concurrent workers' compensation coverage under both the LHWCA and a state's law. He further believed that Morris presented sufficient evidence that Owensboro Grain provided voluntary coverage to him under Kentucky's Workers' Compensation Act pursuant to KRS 342.660. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Morris's claim. This appeal followed.

I. A WORK-RELATED INJURY COVERED UNDER THE LHWCA EXEMPTS THE WORKER FROM THE KENTUCKY WORKERS' COMPENSATION ACT

Morris first argues that the ALJ erred by finding that since his injury was covered under the LHWCA he may not file a Kentucky workers' compensation claim. He instead believes that there is concurrent jurisdiction under the LHWCA and our Workers' Compensation Act and that he could elect to file a claim under both statutory schemes. We disagree.

All employees in Kentucky are subject to the provisions of the Workers' Compensation Act with the exception of several classes of employees specified by KRS 342.650. One such exempted class of employees includes "[a]ny person for whom a rule of liability for injury or death is provided by the laws of the United States. . ." KRS 342.650(4). The ALJ in finding that Morris fell within KRS 342.650(4), found that Morris "was at the time of his injury engaged in a maritime activity, was injured over navigable waters, and his employer qualified as an employer under the LHWCA." She therefore concluded that the LHWCA provided a "rule of liability" per KRS 342.650(4), and that since Morris was covered by the LHWCA that Kentucky had no jurisdiction. The ALJ accordingly dismissed Morris's workers' compensation claim.

Morris believes that the ALJ's conclusion was incorrect because he does not believe the LHWCA constitutes a "rule of liability" under KRS 342.650(4). Morris argues that the LHWCA was never intended to completely preempt state workers' compensation laws. He contends that the existence of so-called "twilight zones, " which allow a worker to claim both LHWCA and state workers' compensation benefits, indicates that the federal government never intended for the LHWCA to be the sole method for compensating injured maritime workers and therefore cannot be a "rule of liability."

However, Morris's argument that one must look at the interpretation and development of the LHWCA to determine whether the federal government intended for it to preempt state workers' compensation statutes is misguided. The United States Supreme Court has clearly held that a worker who is covered under the LHWCA may also have a remedy under state workers' compensation law in certain circumstances. See Sun Ship Inc. v. Pennsylvania, 447 U.S. 715 (1980). Instead we must ...


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