Compensation for Injuries to Workers Employed at Offshore Oilfields and for Oil & Gas Exploration in Maryland

Persons employed on offshore oilfields or who conduct oil and gas exploration offshore endure some of the harshest and most dangerous work environments of almost all industries. The oil and gas industry alone has the highest rates of fatal and nonfatal injuries, but offshore work is compounded by the environmental conditions associated with working in an open water environment. If a worker sustains an injury, it can be devastating and have long-term consequences. Initially, the only source of recovery for compensation was under the Jones Act, but that Act did not cover many workers or the circumstances under which the accidents occurred. The maritime personal injury legal system for offshore workers, however, has developed significantly over the last century, and with that development came better means to compensation.

In Maryland, there are no offshore oilfields presently, but there had been offshore drilling for oil and gas on the Atlantic coast between 1947 and the early 1980s. There has also been a push to restart oil and gas exploration off the coast of Maryland with the intention to build offshore oilfields in the event exploration yields results. In light of the latter's possibility, our trial attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian are prepared to pursue any personal injury cases that may arise out of this exploration and subsequent development of oilfields offshore in Maryland. Our combined experience in the fracking industry and general maritime personal injury places us in a strategic position to take on personal injury and offshore oilfield cases.

Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA)

Should the oil and gas offshore industry come to Maryland, it could bring with it thousands of jobs. It could, however, also bring with it opportunities that can turn into disasters when accidents happen and workers suffer fatal and nonfatal but serious injuries from those accidents. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), passed in 1953, is the primary source of compensation for offshore rig workers and oilfield workers.

The OCSLA would apply to maritime workers who work on the continental shelf land off the coast of Maryland. The continental shelf is the part of land that extends from the continent to the point in the ocean where the depth of the water drops both rapidly and significantly. The start of the outer continental shelf is three nautical miles from the coast of Maryland and can extend outward hundreds of miles.

The OCSLA, by extension of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, acts as a federal workers' compensation program.

How do you Qualify for Compensation under the OCSLA?

To qualify for compensation under the OCSLA, you must first be covered by the statue and then the injury must have occurred while performing your duties.

With almost all personal injuries in the maritime industry, benefits coverage is directly associated with who you are (i.e., title or position and work duties) and where you are at the time the injury occurred; the qualifications are akin to but not quite the same as the status and situs requirements for the LHWCA.

Workers should be employed in work while aboard a platform or rig rather than a ship or other water vessel, and their work must contribute to the exploration of natural resources or the extraction, development, or removal of those natural resources. Apart from the type of work, to qualify for OCSLA benefits, the facility or structure you work on must be:

  • Permanently or temporarily attached to the outer continental shelf and it must be erected on the seabed of the outer continental shelf and its existence on the outer continental shelf must be for the purpose of exploring, developing or producing natural resources from the outer continental shelf (for example, a stationary oil platform); or
  • Permanently or temporarily attached to the seabed of the outer continental shelf, is not a ship or a vessel, but its purpose is to transport natural resources from the outer continental shelf (for example, a pipeline).

Examples of facilities include:

  • Oil rigs
  • Artificial islands
  • Natural gas rigs
  • Floating dry docks
  • Floating productions systems
  • Floating storage systems
  • Floating offloading systems.

Thus, rather than place of employment, it matters more the type of facility or structure on which you work. Further note that if a person is on a vessel traveling or passing through the outer continental shelf and that person is injured, he or she will not qualify for compensation under the OCSLA simply because the injury occurred on the outer continental shelf.

More recently, it has been deemed possible to qualify for compensation under the OCSLA even if you are not on the outer continental shelf. You may be able to qualify if the injury occurred on land, but you must be able to establish a substantial nexus between the worker's injury and the employer's extractive operations on the shelf. In Pacific Offshore Operators, LLC v. Valladolid, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld U.S. Circuit Court's decision that permitted oil rig workers to claim compensation under the OCSLA though not injured or killed on the offshore rig, but on land.

In Pacific Offshore Operators, LLC v. Valladolid, a rig worker was injured and killed at his employer's onshore facility. Initially, the employer denied survivor benefits to his widow. The widow sued. She won her case before each lower court, and yet the employer kept appealing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The employer argued the cause of death was an accident that occurred on land and not on a qualifying offshore oilfield or oil rig, therefore, the OCSLA did not apply. The Courts disagreed. They explained that because if an employee supports the industry through his work -- albeit onshore-- he should still qualify for the benefits under the OCSLA. Therefore, this case means that any current or future workers injured onshore while conducting duties that support an offshore oilfield or rig, may stand a chance for compensation under the OCSLA.

This case follows the same idea as those persons who are killed in helicopters while also carrying out duties for offshore oilfields and rigs. In fact, helicopter accidents in this industry is one of the leading causes of injuries, including fatal injuries, that result in compensation under the OCSLA. That said, this case also exemplifies the confusion surrounding the OCSLA. The statute does not clearly identify who is covered and what that coverage entails; it is generally determined on a case-by-case basis. Thus, even for those workers being transported by helicopter to the offshore oilfield or rig, qualifying for compensation is determined on a case-by-case basis.

What are the Benefits of the OCSLA?

The purpose of the OCSLA is the provision of a workers' compensation system that would cover employees in the maritime industry working on the outer continental shelf who (1) are injured; or (2) are not covered by the Jones Act for compensation purposes. Unlike the Jones Act, negligence is not a prerequisite to compensation; it is not necessary that someone or some entity be found liable or negligent for recovery. The only qualifying requirement is that the work was injured during the course of performing his or her job duties.

The benefits include:

  • Reimbursement for lost wages
  • Reimbursement or payment for medical expenses, treatment, therapy, etc.
  • Compensation for permanent disabilities
  • Survivor benefits for dependents, if death occurs.

OCSLA, however, does not specifically state what the available remedies are to a victim of an offshore accident. Again, it is on a case-by-case basis; each case must be analyzed separately. As such, it can be difficult for someone who is unsure or inexperienced with maritime law to successfully draft and file a claim under OCSLA. At Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, our experienced attorneys know and understand maritime personal injury law and will be here to provide legal representation for those who need it.

What doesn't the OCSLA do?

The OCSLA allows a workers' compensation scheme provided through the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, but it does not allow for a claim for negligence. Therefore, if you obtain compensation under the OCSLA, you forego any entitlement to sue for negligence.

Though the OCSLA does not provide room for compensation claims based on negligence, it is important to know that many -- if not most -- accidents arise out of negligence. These accidents have the potential to be life-altering and, indeed, life-threatening. Common accidents that originate from acts of negligence may include one or more of the following:

  • Fatigue or poor decisions due to overworked or long working hours
  • Lack of adequate, sufficient training
  • Lack of adequate, sufficient supervision of employees
  • Lack of adequate, sufficient safety training
  • Lack of sufficient safety gear
  • Poor or improperly maintained equipment
  • Outdated, defective equipment
  • A flaw or defect with the manufacturing or product design of a product or structure.

Other Sources of Compensation

An offshore oilfield or oil rig worker may be able to file a claim for negligence under general maritime law, and in some cases, may do the same under the Jones Act, if -- in the latter instance -- he or she qualifies as a seaman. This is where maritime law can get confusing and frustrating: choosing the law under which to file a claim.

You may stand to gain more if you file a claim under general maritime law or the Jones Act rather than the OCSLA because you would potentially have access to non-economic and/or punitive damages in addition to economic damages. Having an experienced maritime personal injury lawyer will help you determine which law applies and which is most beneficial to you and your claim.

Jurisdiction and the OCSLA

Generally, all injuries that occur on navigable waters are under the jurisdiction of federal law, but it can also fall under state law. If the injured party does not file a claim under the OCSLA or Jones Act because the injured part wants to sue the employer, then for offshore injuries on oilfields and rigs, jurisdiction would fall to the nearest state adjacent to the location of the offshore accident -- this is known as the Adjacent State Rule, which the OCSLA put into place. In some cases, federal law may not apply, and thus it is not about choice. If the latter is the case, then the Adjacent State Rule would take effect, and thus the personal injury laws of the adjacent state would apply.

Common Oilfield Worker Accidents

There are a number of accidents that can occur on offshore oilfields or oil rigs that can cause serious injuries, or death. Some of these accidents include:

  • Helicopter crashes
  • Crane failure
  • Blowouts
  • Fires on the rig or platform on in the well
  • Explosions
  • Diving accidents
  • Plane crashes
  • Equipment collapses
  • Falls from catwalks
  • Heavy machinery malfunctions
  • Exposure to poisonous gas and toxic substances
  • Exposure to carcinogens.

Most At-Risk Occupations

Given the common types of accidents that lead to some of the most serious, life-threatening injuries, almost all workers on offshore oilfields and rigs are at risk. There are, however, a number of specific occupations that place those persons within that occupation at greater risk of danger than other occupations associated with offshore oilfields and oil rigs.

  • Derrickhands. Derrickhands stack and guide pipe in the derrick of the drilling rig. They are also responsible for conditioning the drilling fluids and monitoring and maintenance of drilling rig machinery.
  • Drillers. Drillers operate the drilling rig controls and are often supervisors who oversee derrickhands, motorhands, and floorhands on a drilling rig.
  • Floorhands. Floorhands, also known as Roughnecks, are responsible for pipe handling, casing, and drilling equipment on the drill floor. They also carry out maintenance on the equipment, make and break rotary connections using rig tongs, handle tubular goods, elevators and slips, and operate semi-automated pipe-handling machines.
  • Frack Site Workers. Frack site workers can include a number of titles and job duties, such as operators, coordinators, and loaders.
  • H2S Technicians. These workers are tasked with trying to detect and mitigate the hazards of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which is a poisonous gas.
  • Oil Rig Mechanics. These mechanics perform daily prophylactic support checks to make sure equipment operates within proper limitations, troubleshoot mechanical failures, investigate mechanical failures to determine the causes and to make adequate repairs.
  • Motorhands. A motorhand or motorman help keep the engines that power the drilling equipment and some other rig equipment working smoothly, and may perform other tasks per the instructions of drillers or derrickhands.
  • Roustabouts. Roustabouts are unskilled laborers whose jobs range from just about anything, from cleaning up sites and equipment to inspection of pipelines, among many other tasks or assignments.
  • Tool Pushers or Rig Managers. Tool pushers or rig managers generally supervise drilling rigs and the crew. Sometimes they are also involved in drilling operations, including delivering tools and equipment to wellsites.
  • Welders. Welders weld pipe and structures, some must do so underwater, which is particularly dangerous.

If you work in any one of the above positions, the work environment and conditions are most often dangerous and volatile. Should an injury occur, you should contact an experienced maritime lawyer to discuss your options and secure your rights.

Resourceful Offshore Oilfield Lawyers in Maryland

Maritime work can be lucrative work, but it is also work in some of the most hostile and dangerous conditions. If you or a loved one is injured during the course of your work, contact Gilman & Bedigian trial attorneys online or call our law office at (800) 529-6162 for a free consultation. And remember: you do not pay us until we help you secure a successful claim or lawsuit in your favor.

Let Us Help

If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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