Understanding the Zone of Special Danger

Understanding the Zone of Special Danger

May 7, 2019 | Defense Base Act

The Defense Base Act (DBA) protects the compensation rights of civilians working on US military bases outside the country. The DBA is founded on the doctrine of the zone of special danger. In fact, it’s impossible to appreciate DBA cases without understanding the background of the doctrine of special danger.

The DBA is an almost 24-hour all activity coverage for defense contractors. That’s to say that it covers almost every accident you suffer while on a US military base, or underemployment outside the US. More on that later.

For now, let’s look at how the zone of danger was interpreted in three cases. The last case will surprise you.

Zone of Special Danger: Understanding the Doctrine

Compensation for workplace accidents is not new to law. However, the zone of special danger expands the scope of employer liability in the case of injury or death. The doctrine is founded on the principle that employment may inadvertently create a zone of danger outside the workplace.

In such a case, the employee is eligible for compensation. Many cases have argued what constitutes a zone of special danger and it’s scope. Let’s look at three of the most influential rulings:

Where It All Began

O’Leary v. Brown-Pacific-Maxon, Inc.:

This landmark ruling of 1951 established the zone of special danger as a complementary consideration in Defense Base Act cases. In the case in question, a contractor working for the navy on the island of Guam drowned while trying to rescue two drowning men.

That said, the zone of danger rule is applicable well beyond the course of employment- as shown by the next case.

The contractor drowned in a channel so dangerous that swimming was expressly forbidden. Since the contractor died in the course of his employment, the court ruled that his mother merited a death benefit under the DBA. 

The Evolution

Battelle Memorial Institute v. DiCecca.

Gerald DiCecca died in a car accident in Georgia (the country). The taxi he was traveling in was struck by a drunk driver. DiCecca was heading to the grocery store at the time of the accident.

The court ruled that employment in Georgia exposed the deceased to risks greater than those he experienced domestically. The accident was, therefore, within a zone of special danger. Note that unlike the O’Leary case above, DiCecca’s death occurred outside the course of employment.

Where We Are

As evidenced by the two cases above, dba lawyers don’t necessarily have to prove a heightened danger. Here are more scenarios covered by the DBA. Let’s now look at the most interesting case on the list:

Steven Ritzheimer v. Triple Canopy, Inc.:

The claimant, Steven Ritzheimer, slipped and injured himself while taking a shower. He was- at the time of the accident- working as a force protection officer in Israel under a US DoD (Department of Defense) contract. The courts ruled in favor of the claimant.

The courts dismissed the employer’s argument that showering in your own apartment, in your own time, is a personal endeavor disconnected from your employment.

With this broad interpretation of the doctrine of the zone of special danger, only two scenarios seem exempted from the DBA:

  1. When injuries are self-inflicted.
  2. When the beneficiary of the claim is responsible for the death in question.

Quick Recap

The zone of special danger makes it fairly easy to get compensation for injuries suffered outside the US. However, there are limits to how far the zone of danger can be stretched. If you are interested in filing a DBA claim in Houston, contact us.

We’ll help you determine the extent of damages you are eligible for.