OALJ Finds Employee Exposed to COVID-19 at Work Had Compensable Work Injury Under LHWCA

In Stanford Locus v. Huntington Ingalls Industries, the U.S. Department of Labor Administrative Law Judge (OALJ) in the Newport News, Virginia District Office found that an employee who could have been exposed to COVID-19 from his working conditions had a compensable work injury under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). In so ruling, the OALJ determined that (1) the employee had established a prima facie case that he could have contracted COVID-19 at work and that (2) the employer had not effectively rebutted the statutory presumption of injury through equivocal yet hypothetical evidence.

Locus v. Huntington Industries– Background

In Locus v. Huntington, Claimant, Stanford Locus, sought benefits under the LHWCA after he contracted COVID-19 and subsequently had to be hospitalized for two weeks and take a total of approximately three months off work to recover. Claimant argued that he was entitled to temporary total disability benefits from the time he was diagnosed with COVID-19 to when he returned to work, as well as medical expenses due to the fact that he was exposed to several, unmasked longshoreman in his work as a bus driver.

OALJ Discussion and Ruling

The OALJ first addressed whether Claimant met the status and situs of LHWCA. Citing to prior cases with similar facts of driving longshoremen between the parking and shipyard, it was determined that Claimant met the requirements for status to be covered. In determining whether Claimant satisfied situs, the OALJ noted that it was impossible to pinpoint precisely when and where Claimant contracted COVID-19 – in the parking lot or shipyard. The OALJ reasoned that Section 20(a) presumption could be used to presume that Claimant was injured on a covered situs, unless the Employer was able to rebut through substantial evidence.

In order to obtain the Section 20(a) presumption, Claimant must establish a prima facie case by proving that (1) he suffered a harm and that (2) working conditions existed which could have caused the harm. In this case, Claimant drove a bus for 12 hours a day with mostly unmasked passengers who entered and departed the bus within six feet of Claimant. Therefore, the OALJ found that Claimant could have contracted COVID-19 at work. This not only invoked the statutory presumption, but also confirmed that Claimant’s injury occurred on a covered situs.

Finally, the OALJ found that the presumption was not sufficiently rebutted with sufficient evidence that could disprove the causal relationship between Claimant’s work and his injury. The OALJ found that the employer must produce facts, not mere speculation, to rebut the presumption. Further, the OALJ noted that even if the employer presents evidence of equal likelihood that Claimant contracted COVID-19 elsewhere, should that evidence be hypothetical, it would not be enough to rebut the presumption. Here, Employer offered evidence that Claimant’s wife and daughter, who he lived with, were diagnosed with COVID-19 after the Claimant, suggesting he could have contracted COVID-19 at home. The OALJ found this to be speculative, and thus not enough to rebut the presumption. Therefore, Claimant was entitled to temporary total disability benefits from the time he was unable to work as well as medical expenses under LHWCA.