Garcia v. American Airlines, Inc.

Decision Date05 November 1993
Docket NumberNo. 93-1534,93-1534
Citation12 F.3d 308
PartiesSandor GARCIA, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. AMERICAN AIRLINES, INC., Defendant, Appellee. . Heard
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Juan Rafael Gonzalez-Munoz, Hato Rey, PR, for plaintiff, appellant.

Pedro A. Delgado Hernandez with whom Jorge L. Capo Matos, Hato Rey, PR, was on brief, for defendant, appellee.

Before TORRUELLA, Circuit Judge, COFFIN, Senior Circuit Judge, and BOUDIN, Circuit Judge.

COFFIN, Senior Circuit Judge.

Appellant Sandor Garcia seeks to litigate a tort claim against his employer pursuant to the Puerto Rico workers' compensation act even though he previously received substantial benefits based on the same injury under the Florida workers' compensation scheme. The district court granted summary judgment for the employer, American Airlines, ruling that the exclusive remedy provision contained in the Florida statute protected the company from further liability. We affirm.

I. Background

The relevant facts in this case are few and undisputed. Plaintiff Garcia, a flight attendant based in Puerto Rico, injured his back while working on a flight from San Juan to Newark, New Jersey, in early 1991. From 1979 through the time of the injury, American provided workers' compensation benefits to its employees through a policy in Florida, pursuant to the Florida Workmen's Compensation Act, Fla.Stat.Ann. Secs. 440.01-440.60. Shortly after his accident, Garcia received a "Notice of Injury" form from the airline and filed it with the Florida Department of Labor. He ultimately received about $44,000 in medical and disability payments under American's Florida policy.

In January 1992, Garcia filed this damages action in Puerto Rico, alleging that American was subject to traditional tort liability because it had failed to fulfill its obligation to secure workers' compensation coverage for Garcia through the Puerto Rico State Insurance Fund. Under the Commonwealth's workers' compensation act, an employer who is required to participate, but does not, may be sued for damages by an injured employee. See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 11, Sec. 16.

In response, American raised two primary defenses. First, it argued that it was not obligated to provide workers' compensation coverage for Garcia in Puerto Rico because less than 50% of his worktime was spent there. The airline thus was free to insure its employees elsewhere and, because Garcia had received substantial benefits under the Florida statute--indeed, higher benefits than would have been available in Puerto Rico--American was immunized from further liability by that act's exclusive remedy provision. 1 Second, the airline argued that, to the extent statutory immunity was not dispositive, the matter raised an arbitrable minor dispute over which the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, pursuant to the federal Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. Secs. 151-188.

The district court dismissed the complaint on statutory immunity grounds, ruling that Puerto Rico would give effect to the exclusive remedy provision contained in the Florida workers' compensation act. The court summarized its conclusion as follows:

The Court finds, therefore, that where an employee spends over fifty (50) percent of his work time outside of Puerto Rico, and is insured and compensated pursuant to the workers' accident compensation laws of a state which provides benefits superior to those granted in Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico would have no interest in barring the operation of the foreign statute's exclusive remedy provision.

The court did not rule on American's argument concerning the Railway Labor Act, 816 F.Supp. 72. 2

On appeal, Garcia reiterates his contention that the Florida exclusive remedy provision may not be given effect to bar his claim for common law damages in Puerto Rico. Our review of the district court's grant of summary judgment is plenary. See Cambridge Plating Co. v. Napco, Inc., 991 F.2d 21, 24 (1st Cir.1993).

II. Discussion

We begin with a few basic principles of workers' compensation law to help to put this case into context. First, it is well established that an injured worker may obtain successive awards in different states, with total recovery limited to the amount of the higher award. 4 A. Larson, Workmen's Compensation Law Sec. 85.00, at 16-18 (1992); see Thomas v. Washington Gas Light Co., 448 U.S. 261, 286, 100 S.Ct. 2647, 2663, 65 L.Ed.2d 757 (1980) (plurality); Industrial Comm'n of Wisconsin v. McCartin, 330 U.S. 622, 626, 67 S.Ct. 886, 889, 91 L.Ed. 1140 (1947). Thus, Garcia's receipt of benefits from Florida does not automatically preclude an effort to obtain additional benefits through his tort action in Puerto Rico.

Virtually all workers' compensation statutes, however, contain an exclusive remedy provision, stating that an award of statutory benefits forecloses any other type of compensation for the injury, including damages in tort. Workmen's Compensation Law, Sec. 88.10, at 16-171. 3 Employees trade their tort remedies "for a system of compensation without contest, thus sparing [them] the cost, delay and uncertainty of a claim in litigation." Mullarkey v. Florida Feed Mills, Inc., 268 So.2d 363, 366 (Fla.1972). Conversely, workers' compensation statutes typically allow a damages remedy against employers who fail to assume the statutory compensation burdens. The theory behind these provisions is self-evident. An employer who avoids sharing in the burdens of the system is not entitled to enjoy its primary benefit, the immunity from non-statutory liability. Florida's and Puerto Rico's statutes each have both types of provisions.

This case involves a head-on collision between the employee's right to successive workers' compensation remedies and the immunity granted by individual jurisdictions to employers who participate in their own workers' compensation programs. Specifically, Garcia claims that he is entitled to bring a damages suit in Puerto Rico--where American was not insured--despite the statutory immunity conferred on the airline in Florida--where it was insured.

Garcia's argument rests on several related contentions: (1) that the Florida workers' compensation act is inapplicable to his injury because no Florida interests were implicated; (2) that American was obligated to insure him under the Commonwealth's compensation scheme because he is a Puerto Rico resident whose job is based there; (3) and, finally, that the inapplicability of the Florida statute renders its exclusive remedy limitation impotent, while the neglected obligation under Puerto Rico law empowers him to sue American for damages.

We believe that each of these premises is flawed. As a result, we conclude that the district court properly dismissed Garcia's tort action.

A. Applicability of Florida law.

It is important to remember, as noted above, that more than one workers' compensation statute can apply to a single compensable injury, so long as each state has a "more-than-casual" interest in the case. 4 Workmen's Compensation Law Sec. 86.00, at 16-48. Florida law may apply to Garcia's injury, therefore, even if another state--or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico--has more substantial interests in his claim. "[T]he test is not whether [Florida]'s interest is greater than that of any other state, but only whether [Florida] has a valid interest." Id. Sec. 86.34, at 16-60 (citing Dissell v. Trans World Airlines, 511 A.2d 441, 444-45 & n. 3 (Me.1986)).

Garcia claims that Florida law is wholly inapplicable to his injury, and that the exclusive remedy provision contained in the Florida workers' compensation statute therefore may not be invoked to bar his damages lawsuit in Puerto Rico. Florida law does not apply, he claims, because neither he, his job, nor his injury has a Florida connection. He emphasizes that he is a Puerto Rico resident based in Puerto Rico; that he entered into his employment relationship with the airline, a Delaware corporation, in Texas; and injured himself while traveling between San Juan and Newark, New Jersey.

In support of his argument, Garcia relies heavily on a Florida Supreme Court case, Wainwright v. Wainwright, 237 So.2d 154 (1970), in which a Georgia resident employed by a Georgia corporation sought benefits under the Florida workers' compensation statute for an injury suffered in Georgia. The court upheld the administrative denial of the claim and, in the course of its opinion, noted that the statute could not be applied "to other states in which ... the State of Florida has no interest and to cases over which the State of Florida has no authority," id. at 156. Garcia maintains that the same factors upon which the Florida Supreme Court relied to reject the claim in Wainwright exist here: an extraterritorial injury to a non-resident employee working for an out-of-state employer.

Garcia's argument, and his reliance on Wainwright, are misplaced. Unlike in Wainwright, neither the employer's business nor the employee's work are located exclusively outside Florida. American Airlines operates in Florida, and Garcia worked on flights into and out of at least two Florida cities. See Sworn Statement of Jorge Olascoaga, Flight Service Supervisor, at 6. Although Garcia is correct that Florida's contacts with his injury are limited, this is at least in part because of the inherently mobile nature of both his job and American's business. The airline has 21,000 flight attendants spread across the country, and no single state has a substantial relationship with all of them. 4

Moreover, even if these contacts were deemed insufficient to trigger the coverage provisions of the Florida act directly, Garcia nevertheless would be covered because of American's voluntary assumption of liability under the Florida system. The Florida statute permits an otherwise excluded employer to waive the exclusion and bring itself or a specific injury within the act's coverage by...

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