How Big is the “Zone of Special Danger” Under the Defense Base Act?  The Experts at Doolittle & Tucker Law Have the Answer

If you are a civilian working on a United States military base overseas, then the Defense Base Act is an important law for you to understand. Stripped to its essence, the Defense Base Act is a workers’ compensation law that was created to compensate non-military personnel who work for the U.S. military. It is meant to protect such civilian workers in the event of injury.

Virtually all workers’ compensation laws, including the Defense Base Act, follow one basic principle: Injuries arising from and in the course of a worker’s employment should be covered by workers’ compensation, and injuries that are not related to a worker’s employment are not covered. Straightforward? Not so fast.

The determination of what arises from and is in the course of a worker’s employment can be tricky, particularly with regard to Defense Base Act claims. Is a worker covered for providing first aid to someone when the worker is off duty? Does the Defense Base Act cover someone injured when they are engaged in recreational activities? The answers to these questions are not as clear cut as you may think.

The best way to understand the nuances of a Defense Base Act claim is to understand a little about something called the “Zone of Special Danger Doctrine.”

The Zone of Special Danger Doctrine

  • The Doctrine Defined

Understanding the Defense Base Act requires touching upon the Zone of Special Danger Doctrine. The Zone of Special Danger Doctrine provides that if a person is at a particular place by virtue of his or her employment, then any injury that occurs in that place should be covered by workers’ compensation.

To give a simple Defense Base Act claim example, assume that you are working on a military base overseas, and your boss tells you to work in a particular barracks that is poorly constructed. If the roof of the barracks caves in and injures you, then you should be covered by the Defense Base Act. Your job required you to go to that particular barracks, putting in you in a “zone of special danger.” You would not otherwise have been in that barracks but for your job.

  • History Behind the Zone of Special Danger

The history of the Zone of Special Danger Doctrine is an interesting one. It is a workers’ compensation principle that comes from early English law. Specifically, the case of Thom v. Sinclair, decided by the House of Lords over one century ago, was one of the first to introduce the concept.

In that case, a fish-worker in Aberdeen, Scotland was boxing herring in a shed that belonged to the worker’s employer. The shed happened to be adjacent to a 20-foot brick wall. The brick wall collapsed, killing several workers and permanently disabling the fish-worker. The question for the House of Lords, then, was whether the fish-worker’s injury arose in the course of her employment.

The House of Lords decided that the fish-worker was entitled to compensation under the relevant workers’ compensation law. The reasoning was that the fish-worker’s obligations to her job put her in a “zone of special danger,” and in that zone the fish-worker was injured.

Two other previous cases informed the House of Lords’ decision:

  • In Davies v. Gillespie, an employer asked a worker to work on a hot steel deck for many hours. The worker’s subsequent sunstroke was covered under workers’ compensation.
  • In Millar v. Refuge Assur. Co., a 1912 case, an insurance collector was injured on a staircase that he was climbing during the course of his job duties. Again, the collector’s job required him to be on that staircase, and thus his injuries due to an accident on the staircase were covered by workers’ compensation.

Expansion of the Zone of Special Danger Doctrine Under the Defense Base Act

The Zone of Special Danger Doctrine was first articulated in the United States in 1951, with the U.S. Supreme Court decision of O’Leary v. Brown-Pacific-Mason, Inc., 340 U.S. 504 (1951). In that case, O’Leary, who was stationed at a military base in Guam, died after trying to save another swimmer’s life. O’Leary was not on duty, but was using the employer’s recreational facilities during his time off.

The Supreme Court, recognizing the Zone of Special Danger Doctrine, held that O’Leary’s employment put him on the military base in Guam. Thus, the obligations or conditions of O’Leary’s employment created a “zone of special danger” out of which the injury or death arose. The Court noted that there does not need to be a direct connection between a worker’s job duties and the accident, nor does the worker need to be on duty at the time. Rather, because the worker’s job put him in Guam (i.e., in a zone of special danger), his family’s Defense Base Act claim should be granted.

Here is a brief synopsis of cases in the U.S. during the last half century that show the expansion of the doctrine since the O’Leary case.

  • 1964 – In O’Keefe v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., the federal court found that a worker’s injury during off-duty, recreational activities, while stationed in South Korea, was covered by the Defense Base Act.
  • 1965 – In Gondeck v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court found that a worker’s death in a car accident when returning from a bar in San Salvador was covered.
  • 1978 – In Smith v. Board of Trustees, the Benefits Review Board allowed death benefits when a worker suffered an abdominal aneurysm after a round of golf in Nepal.
  • 2015 – In Battelle v. Dicecca, the First Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a Defense Base Act claim for death benefits after a worker was killed by a drunk driver when the worker was in a cab going to purchase groceries.

Doolittle & Tucker Will Help You Receive Compensation For Your Defense Base Act Claims Why all of this historical information? How does this help me today? This history is helpful so you can get a sense of what types of injuries are covered by the Defense Base Act. What is more important, however, is that the expert Defense Base Act attorneys at Doolittle & Tucker are well versed in the history of the Defense Base Act and the Zone of Special Danger Doctrine. With our extensive understanding of the Defense Base Act, and its legal history, we can provide you with legal services of the highest quality.

We are a boutique law firm that focuses specifically on Defense Base Act, Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act and Florida Workers Compensation Act claims. That particularized focus gives us the edge in the Defense Base Act field and means that we get excellent results for our clients. Learn more about what we can do for your Defense Base Act claim today by calling 904.396.1734.