Alabama Courts Consider Twilight Zone of Concurrent Jurisdiction
The Supreme Court of Alabama recently addressed preemption of the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act by the Federal Longshore and Harbors Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) in Fernando Rodriguez-Flores v. U.S. Coatings, Inc., where an employee sought Alabama workers’ compensation benefits in state court for alleged injuries he sustained while painting in a dry dock on the coast. The employee also filed tort actions for retaliatory discharge and fraud based on a co-employee’s handling of the claim.
The employee recognized that the LHWCA prohibits tort claims against an employer in state court if the basis of the tort is within the scope of the LHWCA. However, the employee cited a narrow exception that allows such actions in state court when the employer intended to harm the employee. The employee further contended that the LHWCA remedies for retaliatory discharge would be inadequate when compared to state law remedies, which allowed for punitive damages.
The trial court dismissed the fraud and retaliatory discharge claims, agreeing with U.S. Coatings that the tort claims were preempted by the exclusivity provisions of the LHWCA.
On appeal, the Supreme Court recognized that there existed a "twilight zone" of concurrent jurisdiction between the LHWCA and the Alabama Act, wherein the location of a work accident provides the employee the option to pursue benefits under federal or state law. In doing so, the Supreme Court also recognized that state law would be preempted by federal law, if the laws were in conflict.
The Court identified a clear conflict between the LHWCA, which prohibits lawsuits against a co-employee, and Alabama common law, which allows for them. Because of this conflict, the Court held that the state law was preempted by the Federal law. The Court further held that U.S. Coatings did not intend to harm the employee, so the action did not fall within the exception. As a result, the Court affirmed the dismissal of the fraud claim.
As for the retaliatory discharge claim, the Court recognized that both the Alabama Act and the LHWCA provided relief for employees who are fired for claiming workers’ compensation benefits, and therefore, the laws were not in conflict. The Court did note that Alabama provides for punitive damages in retaliatory discharge actions, but that the LHWCA does not. However, this discrepancy in potential remedies did not create a conflict between the substantive causes of action. The Court held that the legislative history and interpretation of the LHWCA supports the notion that the federal law shall supplement state law, if possible, and if no conflict exists between the laws, the employee may pursue the action under state law. As a result, the Court held that the employee’s retaliatory discharge claim brought under state law should not have been dismissed and remanded the case back to the trial court.
My Two Cents:
The Alabama Supreme Court made it clear that a work related accident occurring in the twilight zone of concurrent jurisdiction between the LHWCA and the Alabama Act may be compensated by either set of laws. The restriction that the Court enforced supports the long standing preemptive theory, whereby federal law will trump state law when they are in actual conflict. Interestingly, as held in this case, a significant discrepancy in the potential remedies available to an employee will not result in a conflict between a state law and a federal law which address the same cause of action.
About the Author
This blog post was written by Trey Cotney, Esq. of Fish Nelson LLC, a law firm dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation matters. Fish Nelson is a member of The National Workers’ Compensation Network (NWCDN). If you have any questions about this article or Alabama workers’ compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or any firm member at 205-332-3430.