Ex parte Austal USA, LLC considers the narrow exception to the exclusivity provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act and the standard for a plaintiff to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.
Allegations of Intent-to-Injure
Austal USA operates a shipyard in Mobile, Alabama that builds naval vessels. The plaintiffs are employees of Austal, each of whom was injured during his employment with Austal when using a Miller saw. In their third amended complaint, the plaintiffs alleged intentional misconduct against Austal, alleging Austal had provided the plaintiffs with a “dangerous and defective Miller saw with the specific intent that it would cause injury to Plaintiffs.”
Austel’s Immunity Defense and Motion to Dismiss
Austal moved to dismiss the claim under Alabama Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing it was immune from the intentional misconduct claim via the exclusivity provisions of the Longshore & Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq., “the LHWCA”) and the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act (Alabama Code § 25-5-1, et seq.). The trial court denied Austal’s motion to dismiss the intentional misconduct count.
The plaintiffs later filed a fourth amended complaint, restating the intentional misconduct claim, and adding five more claims that alleged various intentional and/or fraudulent acts or omissions against Austal. Austal moved the court to dismiss the newly alleged claims, as well as the intentional misconduct claim first stated in the third amended complaint. Its grounds for dismissal remained the exclusivity provisions of the LHWCA and Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. The trial court likewise denied this motion to dismiss. Austal petitioned the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals for a writ of mandamus. Ex parte Austal USA, LLC [Ms. 1151138 Mar. 3, 2017), ___ So.3d ___ (Ala. 2017).
On appeal, Austal argued that because the plaintiffs were injured in the line and scope of their employment with Austal, it enjoyed immunity from the tort claims resulting from the exclusivity provision of the LHWCA. The Alabama Supreme Court has previously described the provisions as follows:
“‘The LHWCA, at 33 U.S.C. § 905, precludes a personal injury action against any employer who complies with the LHWCA. Just as Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-53, provides that workers’ compensation benefits are the exclusive remedy for injuries received in a work-related accident, the LHWCA provides, in 33 U.S.C. § 905(a), that an injured worker may not maintain a tort action against his employer for any negligence of the employer giving rise to the injury; the injured worker’s exclusive remedy is under the LHWCA.” Rodriguez-Flores v. U.S. Coatings, Inc., 133 So.3d 874, 880-81 (Ala. 2013).
Rodriguez-Flores recognized an “exceedingly narrow” exception in the exclusivity provision of the LHWCA for occasions in which the employer has committed an intentional tort. 133 So.3d at 881-82. The exception requires that the employer had a specific intent or desire that the injury occurred. Id.
Austal further argued that, on the whole, each plaintiff suffered accidental injury when a tool supplied to each by Austal to perform his/her work kicked back and made contact with their bodies. However, the plaintiffs specifically allege that Austal intended to cause them injury. Austal argues that these assertions by the plaintiffs are conclusory in nature and made only to invoke the narrowly-tailored intent-to-injure exception to the LHWCA exclusivity provision.
Even a Skeptical Court Must Assume the Allegations Are True
While the Alabama Supreme Court was skeptical of the plaintiffs’ claims and noted that the alleged intent-to-injure was inconsistent with the cost-saving motivation, the court held that for purposes of considering whether the complaint is sufficient to withstand the motion to dismiss, the court must take the allegations of the complaint as true. Ussery v. Terry, 201 So.3d 544, 546 (Ala. 2016). The test is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but rather, whether he may possibly prevail. Daniel v. Moye [Ms. 1140819, No. 10, 2016], ___ So.3d ___ (Ala. 2016); Newman v. Savas, 878 So.2d 1147, 1149 (Ala. 2003). A dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is only appropriate “when it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim that would entitle the plaintiff to relief.” Knox v. Western World Ins. Co., 893 So.2d 321, 322 (Ala. 2004) (quoting Nance v. Matthews, 622 So.2d 297, 299 (Ala. 1993)).
In light of the above caselaw, the Alabama Supreme Court could not deny there was some possibility the plaintiffs’ accusations were true. Austal had not shown a clear legal right to a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal, and its petitions were denied.
Photo by James Willamor.