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Wood Group Production Services v. Director

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 22, 2019


          Petition for Review of an Order of the Benefits Review Board

          Before CLEMENT, DUNCAN, and OLDHAM, Circuit Judges.


         Luigi Malta was injured while unloading a vessel on a fixed platform in the territorial waters of Louisiana. Malta made a claim against his employer, Wood Group Production Services (Wood Group), under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act. To enjoy coverage under the Act, a claimant must show both that he was in a place covered by the Act (situs) and that he was engaged in maritime employment (status). The Benefits Review Board concluded that because Malta-who spent 25 to 35 percent of his working hours loading/unloading vessels-was injured while unloading a vessel on a platform customarily used for that task, Malta satisfied both the situs and status requirements. We deny Wood Group's petition for review.[1]


         Wood Group, which staffs personnel for clients in the oil and gas industry, [2] employed Malta as a warehouseman for the Black Bay Central Facility (Central Facility), a fixed platform located in the territorial waters of Louisiana.[3] Central Facility provides support services for oil and gas production occurring at various satellite production platforms in the Helis Black Bay Field. Twenty-two workers, including Malta, lived, worked, and slept at Central Facility, which comprises four separate platforms, connected by catwalks. A warehouse sits on one of these platforms, and in it the workers stored supplies and tools necessary for their sustenance and operations. Three cranes, located at various parts of Central Facility, assisted the workers as they loaded and unloaded these supplies from vessels, which often came from Venice, Louisiana. When workers on the satellite platforms required tools for their operations, the necessary items were taken from the warehouse and loaded onto vessels by crane. The vessels then travelled to the satellite platforms with these supplies.

         Malta worked twelve hours each day-from sunup to sundown-seven days per week at Central Facility (and then he would rest shoreside for seven days). He never worked on any of the satellite platforms. His primary duties included ordering, receiving, and maintaining all supplies and equipment at the Central Facility warehouse. It is undisputed that, although not listed among his official job duties, a significant portion of Malta's "hitch" (shift), was dedicated to loading and unloading vessels arriving at and leaving from Central Facility. Wood Group's project manager, Ray Pitre, testified that this was a "big part" of Malta's job. And Malta testified that he spent roughly 25 to 35 percent of each hitch loading and unloading vessels.

         Malta explained that he regularly would load/unload all sorts of things into/from the vessels: "It can be anywhere from piping to big valves, compressors, drinking water supplies, various items, nothing in particular everyday. It's just whenever we order and something is needed, [I] pull it off the work barge or the water barge." Pitre similarly testified that Malta would unload "a various assortment of things from rags to repair parts to nitrogen cylinders to valves and phalanges . . . [because] the oil industry uses just a vast assortment of supplies." During a typical 12-hour hitch, if a group of workers on a "satellite platform needed additional supplies and equipment," Malta "would help load the field boat." This required Malta, "depending on exactly what it was [and] how big it was, [to] put it on a basket, and send it down to the boat and then off to the respective platform or field operator." Malta testified that there was "no difference" between his duties and those of "a dock worker loading and unloading" vessels in Venice.

         Malta was injured when unloading a boat owned by a third party. He received a call seeking help to offload something coming up from the boats (which had come from one of the satellite platforms). Malta did not go onto the vessel to retrieve the item. Rather, it was "sent up to [him] via crane" while he was standing on the platform in front of the warehouse. As the basket was coming up, he "grabbed the tag line, pulled it in[, ] and as the basket collapsed," Malta saw that the item was a CO2 cannister-which had been mistakenly marked as empty. While Malta was removing the cannister from the cargo basket, it exploded, and he was injured.

         Malta made a claim for benefits against Wood Group under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA or Act), 33 U.S.C. § 901, et. seq. By way of background, the Act "provides compensation for the death or disability of any person engaged in 'maritime employment, '" under certain conditions. Herb's Welding, Inc. v. Gray, 470 U.S. 414, 415 (1985). Wood Group contested Malta's claim for benefits. None of the facts was disputed, and the only question was whether Malta was qualified to recover under the Act. After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) initially ruled against Malta, concluding "that [because] the fixed platform on which [Malta] worked" was not covered under the Act, there was no jurisdiction to consider his claim. In light of this holding, the ALJ did not initially decide whether Malta enjoyed maritime status under § 902 of the Act.

         The Benefits Review Board (Board) reversed the ALJ's decision, concluding the ALJ misapplied this court's precedent and the plain language of the statute. It held that Malta's "injury occurred on a covered situs" and remanded the case so that the ALJ could address Malta's status.

         On remand, once again, none of the facts was in dispute. The only question was whether Malta enjoyed maritime status. The ALJ found that, because Malta "loaded or unloaded the cargo from a ship or vessel, he was performing a traditional maritime activity" and satisfied "the status requirement of the Act." Wood Group appealed to the Board, which affirmed the ALJ's decision.

         Having exhausted its options before the Department of Labor, Wood Group filed a petition for review with this court, arguing that Malta cannot recover under the Act because he lacks status and his injury did not occur on a covered situs. Both Malta and the Director of the Office of Worker's Compensation Programs[4] filed briefs defending the Board's decision.


         If "the facts are not in dispute"-as is true of this appeal-then whether a worker is covered under the Act presents a "pure question of law" that "is an issue of statutory construction and legislative intent." New Orleans Depot Servs., Inc. v. DOWCP (Zepeda), 718 F.3d 384, 387 (5th Cir. 2013) (quoting DOWCP v. Perini N. River Assocs., 459 U.S. 297, 300, 305 (1983)). Accordingly, we review the Board's decision de novo. Id.


         Wood Group contends the Board erred by reversing the ALJ's initial decision holding that Malta's injury failed to satisfy the Act's situs requirement. The current form of the situs requirement-found at § 903-says a claimant is eligible for benefits

only if the disability or death results from an injury occurring upon the navigable waters of the United States (including any adjoining pier, wharf, dry dock, terminal, building way, marine railway, or other adjoining area customarily used by an employer in loading, unloading, repairing, dismantling, or building a vessel).

33 U.S.C. § 903(a). Congress has tinkered with the situs requirement. "Prior to 1972, the Act applied only to injuries occurring on navigable waters. Longshoremen loading or unloading a ship were covered on the ship and the gangplank but not shoreward, even though they were performing the same functions whether on or off the ship." Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. Co. v. Schwalb, 493 U.S. 40, 46 (1989). The Supreme Court has said that the current version of the situs requirement, which should be "liberally construed," covers "all those on the situs involved in the essential or integral elements of the loading or unloading process." Id. The Supreme Court has defined loading and unloading a vessel to mean "taking cargo out of the hold, moving it away from the ship's side, and carrying it immediately to a storage or holding area." Ne. Marine Terminal Co. v. Caputo, 432 U.S. 249, 266-67 (1977).

         It is undisputed that Central Facility does not meet the definition of "navigable waters" or any of the structures enumerated in this section ("pier, wharf, dry dock, terminal, building way, marine railway"). So, under the language of the statute, Malta can recover only if his injury occurred on an "other adjoining area customarily used by ...

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