Court Says Carpenter’s Injuries Falling Off Bridge Aren’t Covered by Longshoreman’s Act

Liz Carey

Norfolk, VA ( – A carpenter’s fall off a bridge can’t be considered maritime work a district appeals court says, allowing the carpenter to sue Norfolk Southern Railway Company for damages.
On May 26, 2016, Kenneth Muhammad was working for Norfolk Southern replacing railroad ties on the South Branch Lift Bridge over the Elizabeth River. During the course of replacing the ties, Muhammad crossed a “catwalk” which gave way under him. While he was able to grab on to rails to prevent his fall, court documents say, he was hit in the head, and also suffered serious injuries to his knees and spine as a result.

Muhammad sued Norfolk Southern under the Federal Employers’ Liabilities Act, saying that the company failed to provide a safe place to work, failed to provide safe conditions in which to work, failed to inspect the bridge properly and failed to comply with its own written safety and operating rules regarding bridge and track maintenance and inspection, according to court documents.

In response, the company filed a motion to dismiss saying the case would fall under the Longshore and Harbor Worker’s Compensation Act instead of the FELA. Because Muhammad was working on a bridge, he was doing maritime work, the company stated in court documents.

A United States District Court in Norfolk, Virginia agreed and dismissed Muhammad’s claim.
The lower court’s ruling meant that Muhammad’s claim would be limited to scheduled and specified amounts provided by the workers’ compensation statute provided by the LHWCA. Damages claimed under the FELA for negligence are unscheduled and would have cost the company significantly more.

Muhammad appealed. On June 4, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth District overturned that ruling finding that the lower court erred in finding that Muhammed was engaged in “maritime work.”

“The undisputed facts in this case show that Muhammad was not injured on a facility contiguous to navigable waters that was customarily used for the loading, unloading, repairing, dismantling, or building of a vessel — i.e., a facility linked to traditional longshoremen’s work on the water,” the three judge panel found. “Rather, the situs of Muhammad’s injury was a railroad that was quite distinct from such a facility, and the location on the Bridge where Muhammad was injured was accessible only by land and was not contiguous to water. While the Bridge’s center span did lift to allow vessels to pass underneath it, a land-based bridge’s simple accommodation of ships is a far cry from a shoreside facility serving as ‘an integral or essential part of loading or unloading a vessel.’

The judges wrote that covering Muhammad’s injuries on a bridge would require assuming that all bridges over navigable waters were part of the LHWCA, and that work over a body of water construed maritime work, as much as work upon water did.

“Rather, the law is clear that, for a land-based situs to be covered under the Act, it must be a shoreside facility that is “an integral or essential part of loading or unloading a vessel” — a facility linked to traditional longshoremen’s work on the water,” the judges wrote in court documents. “The South Branch Lift Bridge is not such a facility. Because Muhammad was not injured on a situs covered by the LHWCA, we need not reach the question of whether he was engaged in maritime employment. And since his injury was not covered by the LHWCA, the district court erred in dismissing his FELA claim.”

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