PA Employee Injured on Docked Ship Not Entitled to Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Benefits

As we have mentioned several times on this blog, and even discussed on our website, most employees in Pennsylvania are covered under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act.  However, different groups of employees fall outside this coverage for various reasons.  One of those groups, employees who work in maritime industry, was the subject of a recent decision from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

In Savoy v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Global Associates), the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania had to decide whether an employee injured on a docked United States Navy vessel was entitled to coverage under both the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (Longshore Act) and the state Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (Workers’ Compensation Act).  When an injured worker can choose among different benefit programs, it is known as “concurrent jurisdiction.”

The injured worker in the Savoy case testified that the Navy vessel was docked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in a basin (so in the water of the Delaware River).  While on the ship, Mr. Savoy, an electrician, tripped and twisted his right knee, suffering a torn right lateral meniscus.  A Claim Petition was filed seeking benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act (the parties agreed that Mr. Savoy was already receiving benefits under the Longshore Act).

After hearing the evidence, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) denied the Claim Petition.  Specifically, the WCJ found that the ship “was on the navigable waters of the United States at the time of his work injury.”  Given that finding, the WCJ concluded that the claim fell exclusively under the Longshore Act.  This was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania also affirmed the denial of the Claim Petition.  There is an area of overlap between the Longshore Act and the Workers’ Compensation Act, which the Court said is called a “twilight zone.”  This occurs where an injury has concurrent jurisdiction with the federal Longshore Act and a state’s workers’ compensation act, if “the employee is neither strictly maritime nor strictly land-based.”

In this case, however, the ship was in the water, and the employee was on that ship, at the time of the injury.  Therefore, the Court found that the entire injury took place “on the water,” making benefits under the Longshore Act the exclusive remedy for the injured worker.  Recognizing that the Longshore Act does extend to overlap a state’s workers’ compensation act, the Court stated, “maritime employees who are injured over navigable waters while performing traditionally maritime functions remain exclusively in the jurisdiction of the Longshore Act.”

While we have no strong disagreement with this decision, we do question whether a ship docked in a “basin” is actually in “navigable waters.”  If a ship is in dry dock, there would be no doubt the Workers’ Compensation Act would provide protection to the injured worker.  We simply wonder whether the difference between dry dock and docked to a pier in a “basin,” is a distinguishing factor without a difference.