Supreme Court Upholds Marine Contractor Widow’s Right to Sue

June 4, 2006

In a ruling that lawyers say has implications for thousands of maritime workers across the country, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a Syracuse, N.Y. widow’s right to sue employer Lockheed Martin for the wrongful death of her husband in a December 2000 Cayuga Lake drowning accident.

The court denied Lockheed Martin’s petition for a Writ of Certiorari, in which the Syracuse-based government contractor presented arguments that, if accepted and successful, would have barred Ms. Morganti from bringing a lawsuit for damages.

Her negligence claim is now cleared to proceed in federal court in Syracuse.

On December 20, 2000, Rocco Morganti, a test engineer employed by Lockheed Martin Naval Electronic & Surveillance Systems for 15 years, suffered a fatal accident on a work boat returning him to shore on upstate New York’s Cayuga Lake. Morganti was conducting underwater tests of Lockheed transducers (a component required for sonar equipment used by the U.S. Navy) on Lockheed’s floating work platform on Cayuga Lake when he fell into the icy waters of the lake while untying the boat. Rescue efforts failed, Morganti drowned and his body was recovered later.

The heart of the dispute was whether the federal statute, the Longshore Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHWCA), and prior Supreme Court decisions, which provide substantial benefits to employees who are injured while working on or about navigable waters of the United States, applied to Morganti, who was not a typical longshoreman.

The Act and these prior rulings also provide employees the right to sue their employers for damages when they are injured as a result of the negligent operation of the employer’s vessel.

After an Administrative Law Judge initially denied benefits under the LHWCA to Ms. Morganti, the law firm of Kreindler & Kreindler convinced the Benefits Review Board of the U.S. Department of Labor to reverse the ALJ’s decision and find coverage.

Lockheed Martin then challenged that ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York which, on June 24, 2005, affirmed the BRB’s finding of coverage under the LHWCA.

“The recent high court victory, where Lockheed Martin sought to overturn the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by its petition, has broad and positive implications for people engaged in maritime employment and are injured, especially when employers and manufacturers are routinely seeking to limit damages generally,” said Marc S. Moller, a partner at Kreindler & Kreindler LLP who, along with Daniel O. Rose, another partner at the firm, represents Ms. Morganti.

According to Rose, the Supreme Court’s decision “confirms the Appeals Court ruling that established that the victim — or in the case of death, his family — are protected if he or she is upon ‘actual navigable waters’ at the time of the injury. The ruling reemphasized the broad scope of the Perini doctrine (Perini, 459 U.S. at 311), which holds that ‘any worker, regardless of his or her duties or activities, is protected by the Act if injured on navigable waters.'”

Source: Kreindler & Kreindler LLP

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