The USNS Carson City, an expeditionary fast transport ship, in 2016.

The USNS Carson City, an expeditionary fast transport ship, in 2016. (Haley Nace/U.S. Navy)

A federal judge on Tuesday halted a lawsuit from a civilian engineer who claims she was raped aboard a Navy ship so the Labor Department can determine whether the incident should be treated as a work-related injury.

Elsie Dominguez filed the lawsuit against the U.S. government in November, claiming the captain of the ship within the Navy’s Military Sealift Command raped her in December 2021. The suit also claims the Navy’s inadequate security allowed for the assault, and the service failed to care for and protect her when she reported the attack the next morning using the proper reporting procedures.

A 2014 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Dominguez is a career mariner who worked aboard the USNS Carson City, an expeditionary fast transport vessel, as the first assistant engineer, according to court documents. During a stop in Brindisi, Italy, Dominguez left the ship and said she felt overly intoxicated after one beer and one shot of liquor. She returned to the ship and passed out in her room, where she claims the captain used a master key code to enter her room during the night and assault her while she was unconscious.

The Justice Department has argued Dominguez’s time working on the ship fell within a temporary travel status, and anything that occurred in that time while on her employer’s premises, even when off duty, is covered by the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, or FECA, according to court documents.

The Labor Department manages claims under FECA, the federal law that pays medical expenses and compensation benefits to workers for injuries obtained while performing their duties.

Dominguez’s legal team has argued this was her permanent duty station because she had no other work site, and her time aboard the ship was indefinite.

Judge Edward Kiel of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, where the lawsuit was filed, determined there was a substantial question about the matter and the Labor Department should weigh in, according to court documents.

The case will stop until that happens, and each side is required to submit status reports every three months, said Christine Dunn, an attorney for Dominguez.

“It’s very frustrating because even in their own papers, the government says being sexually assaulted should never be part of a mariner’s job,” Dunn said Wednesday. “But yet, that’s essentially what they have to conclude to find that its workers compensation.”

If the Labor Department determines FECA does not apply to Dominguez, the lawsuit will continue through the courts, Dunn said.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has an ongoing investigation into the allegations, according to court documents.

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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