The Section 20(a) Presumption Under the Longshore Act – What Is It and How Does It Help You?

We have all heard the term “presumption of innocence,” right?  In fact, you can’t watch a police procedural like Law & Order SVU without hearing that a person accused of a crime is always presumed innocent until proven guilty.  By watching that television show, you are getting a little legal education without even realizing it.  Very cool, right?

In fact, the legal concept of the presumption of innocence is one example of what lawyers call a legal presumption.  Simply put, a legal presumption is something that a court will conclude (or presume) is true until there is factual evidence to disprove it.  So, taking the presumption of innocence as our example, when a police officer writes a police report that accuses someone of committing a crime, the judge and jury must always presume that the accused is an innocent person until the prosecutor puts facts before a jury to prove that the accused is guilty.

Now, what does all this have to do with workers’ compensation and the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (Longshore Act)?  Well, remember that the presumption of innocence is only one of many types of legal presumptions we have in our legal system.  The Longshore Act has some presumptions of its own, and when it comes to a workplace injury, you will want to be familiar with an important presumption under Section 20(a) of the Longshore Act.

We are going to take a little time today to talk about the Section 20(a) presumption.  Yet, this article is just a brief overview.  If you have more detailed questions about your own workers’ compensation situation, and you believe that you are covered under the Longshore Act, or maybe even the Defense Base Act, you should be sure to call the legal experts at Doolittle & Tucker.  Our attorneys are the very best in Florida in handling Longshore Act, Defense Base Act, and Florida workers’ compensation claims.  Also, you pay no legal fees unless we obtain compensation for you.  Call us today at 904-396-1734.

What Is Section 20(a)?

The presumption under Section 20(a) of the Longshore Act essentially allows for judges to make an initial assumption that what a person puts in a workers’ compensation claim is true.  More specifically, Section 20(a) provides that when a person makes a Longshore Act claim that he or she was injured (or a loved one claims that an employee was killed) during the course of employment, a judge deciding the case will use Section 20(a) to presume at the outset that what the employee is saying is true.

The inquiry does not end there, however.  Remember, Section 20(a) only allows for an initial presumption of validity.  The Section 20(a) presumption is a rebuttable presumption.  That means that once a judge sees a claim and presumes it is true, then the employer, or the employer’s insurance carrier, has the burden to show that the employee’s injury was not a result of anything that occurred in the workplace.

Sound’s easy right?  If you make a Longshore Act claim that you were injured when doing your work duties, then Section 20(a) states that your claim is presumed to be a valid one.  Then, the burden shifts to your employer to prove that your injury did not result from doing your work duties.  If your employer is unable to disprove, or rebut, your initial claim then you are done, right?  Well, the reality is not always that simple.

Let’s take a look as some wrinkles, and a real-world case example, in the Section 20(a) world to see how the presumption is most often used.

Section 20(a) Does Not Replace Your Duty to Initially Make Your Case

Given the discussion above, you may think that all you need to do is write out your claim so the Section 20(a) presumption can kick in.  It is actually not quite that simple.  Section 20(a) does not relieve you of the responsibility of making a prima facie case that your injury arose out of your employment.

A prima facie case is the Latin way of saying that you make an initial showing based on some facts that what you state in your Longshore Act claim form is true.  A medical record documenting a doctor’s visit about your injury, and perhaps the email you sent to your supervisor reporting the workplace accident resulting in the injury, could be enough to make that initial showing of validity.

So, once you have made an initial showing that you were injured at work, the Section 20(a) presumption does, in fact, kick in to help establish that your injury was caused by an incident at work.

Section 20(a) Does Not Cover Injuries You Did Not Claim

It is important to recognize that Section 20(a) only applies to injuries that you claim on your Longshore Act claim form.  That sounds simple enough, but let’s take a look at a case where it proved not to be so simple.

A worker made a Longshore Act claim that his back and groin were injured at work.  Once the worker’s case was before an administrative judge, the worker added in court that the steroids he was taking for his back caused a heart condition.

After the judge decided, under Section 20(a), that the heart condition was presumed to be work-related, the employer appealed.  The appeals court reversed the lower court, finding that Section 20(a) could not be used to connect the heart condition to the work injury.  The appeal court reasoned that the worker never mentioned a heart condition in his initial claim.  It then ruled that the worker could not rely on Section 20(a), but rather had to factually prove that the heart condition “naturally or unavoidably” resulted from his back injury.

Note that the appeals court did not say that the worker could not receive compensation for the heart condition.  It just found that the Section 20(a) presumption did not apply to the heart condition.

To Conclude – The Presumption is All About Burden Shifting

The most important takeaway with regard to the Section 20(a) presumption is that it will help you before a judge deciding your workers’ compensation case unless and until your employer rebuts the Section 20(a) presumption.  So, once you make a claim with some evidence to support it, then the burden to prove that your injury was notwork related falls on the employer.  In other words, the burden shifts to your employer.

Once your employer makes a showing that the injury was not work related, then the Section 20(a) presumption goes away, and the judge must weigh all the facts to determine whether compensation should be paid.   However, if your employer is unable to rebut your claim, then Section 20(a) makes it that much easier for the judge to conclude that your injury was related to your work so you are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.

Remember this article only scratches the surface of the importance of Section 20(a) of your Longshore Act claim.  Call Doolittle & Tucker at 904-396-1734 and schedule an appointment to speak to one of our expert lawyers today.