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The Alamitos Bay Yacht Club in Long Beach hired Brian Ranger as a maintenance worker. He helped the club with its fleet by painting, cleaning, maintaining, repairing, unloading, and mooring vessels.

One day, Ranger used a hoist to lower a club boat into navigable waters. He stepped from the dock onto its bow, fell, was hurt, and applied for workers’ compensation. Then he sued the club in state court on federal claims of negligence and unseaworthiness.

The trial court sustained the club’s final demurrer to the second amended complaint. The trial court ruled there was no admiralty jurisdiction.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court decision in the published case of Ranger v. Alamitos Bay Yacht Club -B315302 (September 2023).

Congress enacted the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act of March 4, 1927, which established a workers’ compensation program for “any person engaged in maritime employment.” The 1972 amendments extended the coverage of the Longshore Act but created uncertainty about the boundaries of that extension.

Congress later learned the 1972 law had created “a general confusion as to whether or not the Longshore Act applies.” The rules of coverage became a prolific generator of litigation. In 1984, Congress responded by introducing a degree of clarity: Congress sharpened the Longshore Act’s focus to exclude employees who, although they happened to work on or next to navigable waters, lacked a sufficient nexus to maritime navigation and commerce.

The 1984 statute thus carved out specific employee categories, placed them beyond the coverage of the Longshore Act, and assigned these employees to the “appropriate state compensation laws.” Among the carveouts were employees working for clubs.

Which clubs? All clubs. Initially there was disagreement between the Senate and the House of Representatives about whether the Longshore Act should exclude only employees working at nonprofit clubs. (H.R.Rep. No. 98-570, 1st Sess., p. 4 (1983) (H.R.Rep. 98-570).) The Senate wanted a broader approach but the House initially favored the narrower one. The Senate’s view prevailed: the exclusion applies to all club employees and is not limited to nonprofits.

Ranger concedes that his employer is a “club,” but then asserts that federal law preempts state law in this case.However the Court of Appeal noted that “national and state interests do not clash here. Federal and state law are in accord. For employees like Ranger, both Congress and the California legislature have replaced the fault-based regime of tort with the no-fault alternative of workers’ compensation. Both bodies have preferred the virtues of speedy, predictable, and efficient compensation for occupational accident victims like Ranger.”

Ranger counters this analysis by repeatedly stressing the importance of “uniformity” of the general maritime law. In this quest, Ranger relies on Green v. Vermilion Corp. (5th Cir. 1998) 144 F.3d 332, 334–341.

The Court of Appeal responded “We respectfully but profoundly differ with Green. We therefore also part ways with Freeze v. Lost Isle Partners (2002) 96 Cal.App.4th 45, 51-52 (Freeze), which relied on Green without adding to its analysis.”

Apart from Green and Freeze, Ranger cites cases predating 1984. However, “these authorities deal with old superseded law, not the new governing law.”

In sum, California’s workers’ compensation law is Ranger’s exclusive remedy. Congress in 1984 decreed this state law aptly covers his situation. A core part of the state workers’ compensation bargain is that injured workers get speedy and predictable relief irrespective of fault. In return, workers are barred from suing their employers in tort. The trial court correctly dismissed Ranger’s tort suit against his employer.”