Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc. v. Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, 519 U.S. 248 (1997)

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248

OCTOBER TERM, 1996

Syllabus

INGALLS SHIPBUILDING, INC., et al. v. DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION PROGRAMS, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 95-1081. Argued November 12, 1996—Decided February 18, 1997

While working for petitioner Ingalls as a shipfitter, Jefferson Yates was exposed to asbestos. After he was diagnosed as suffering from asbestosis and related conditions, he filed a claim for disability benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA or Act). Ingalls admitted compensability and eventually settled with Mr. Yates, who, in the meantime, had sued the manufacturers and suppliers of the asbestos products that were allegedly present in his workplace when he contracted asbestosis. Before his death, he settled with some of these defendants, each of whom required releases from respondent Yates, Mr. Yates' wife, even though she was not a party to the litigation. None of these predeath settlements was approved by Ingalls. After Mr. Yates' death, Mrs. Yates filed a claim for death benefits under the Act. Ingalls contested the claim under Act 33(g)(1), which states: "If the person entitled to compensation . . . enters into a settlement with a third person . . . for an amount less than the compensation to which the person . . . would be entitled under this [Act], the employer shall be liable for compensation . . . only if written approval of the settlement is obtained from the employer . . . before the settlement is executed." The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled for Mrs. Yates, and the Benefits Review Board (Board) affirmed, holding that, at the time she executed the predeath settlements, she was not a "person entitled to compensation" under 33(g)(1) because her husband still lived, and, therefore, her right to death benefits had not yet vested. The Fifth Circuit agreed and affirmed. The court also rejected Ingalls' argument that the Director, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP), lacked standing to participate as a respondent in the appeal of a Board decision.

Held: 1. Before an injured worker's death, the worker's spouse is not a "person entitled to compensation" for death benefits within 33(g)'s

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