On June 21, 2022, the United States Supreme Court, in United States v. Washington, declared unconstitutional a 2018 version of Washington workers compensation (WC) statute 51.32.187, which created a presumption of compensability for certain types of diseases contracted by federal contractors working at the Hanford federal nuclear cleanup site.
The Supreme Court reasoned that the WC statute explicitly treats federal contractors differently than state or private workers by imposing additional WC costs on the federal government for payment of WC claims brought under the statute. This, the court concluded, violates the federal intergovernmental immunity doctrine, which invalidates state laws that seek to regulate the United States directly or discriminate against the federal government and its contractors.
The court also found that the federal government did not waive its intergovernmental immunity pursuant to a federal law (40 U.S.C. § 3172) that authorizes the states to regulate WC on federal land to the same extent that the states can regulate on nonfederal land. The court held that this federal law did not clearly authorize a state to enact a discriminatory law that singled out the federal government.
The court also noted that, while the case was pending, Washington amended WC statute 51.32.187 and broadened the scope of the presumption so that it no longer applies exclusively to federal contractors. However, the court declined to dismiss the constitutional challenge because, if successful, it could allow the federal government to recover money spent on WC claims brought under the 2018 version of the law.
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