Author: Edward F. Stauss III

Subcontractor’s Status as Plaintiff’s “Two-Contract” Statutory Employer Establishes Owner’s Immunity

In Louisiana, a “statutory employer” is entitled to protection from tort suit. With limited exceptions, the defense must be supported by a contractual provision declaring the defendant to be a statutory employer in a manner consistent with La. RS 23:1061. In Spears v. Exxon Mobil Corporation & Turner Industries Group, LLC, 2019-0309, 291 So. 3d 1087 (La. App. 1st Cir. 2019), the defendant-premises owner successfully asserted the defense, notwithstanding multiple issues with respect to the nature and terms of the agreement and an alleged lack of privity with the plaintiff’s immediate employer.

In Spears, the plaintiff was injured when he slipped and fell on the production floor at the Exxon plastics plant. Spears filed suit against multiple parties, including Exxon, alleging it failed to provide a safe premises. The plaintiff worked for Poly Trucking who operated at Exxon under a contract with Polly-America. Poly-America, LP and Exxon, in turn, were signatories to an agreement entitled “STANDARD PURCHASE ORDER” which stated that Polly-America was to:

“… provide pickup/delivery service… For all containers of Polyethylene scrap as well as Polyethylene’s scrap recovery vacuum service for a quoted amount of one dollar.”

The “STANDARD PURCHASE ORDER” also contained a section expressly recognizing Exxon:

“… as the statutory employer of employees of Poly America and subcontractors while such employees are engaged in the contracted work.”

Exxon filed a motion for summary judgment based upon its status as Spears’ statutory employer. The Trial Court granted the motion and dismissed Exxon with prejudice. On appeal, Spears argued that the contract between Exxon and Poly-America presented multiple issues of fact and law which necessitated a reversal of the summary judgment. The issues identified by the plaintiff included the following:

  1. The agreement upon which Exxon relied was a “Contract of Sale,” not a “Contract for Services;”
  2. The agreement specified that the signatory contractor (Poly America) was an “Independent Contractor;”
  3. The plaintiff’s immediate employer (Poly Trucking) was neither a signatory to, nor specifically identified anywhere in the agreement; and,
  4. Although the agreement designated Exxon as the statutory employer of the “employees of Poly America,” Exxon is not specifically designated as the statutory employer of the employees of Poly Trucking, the plaintiff’s immediate employer.

The First Circuit Court of Appeal expressly rejected each of the plaintiff’s arguments.

First, the Court pointed out that the law does not mandate that the contract containing the statutory employment language be of any particular type. As such, whether the contract was considered a contract of sale or for services was irrelevant.

Secondly, the Court rejected the claim that contractual language describing Exxon as an “independent contractor” required a rejection of the statutory defense. The Spears Court reasoned that nothing in La. RS 23:1061 prevents an independent contractor from entering into a written agreement whereby the principal to that contract is recognized as the statutory employer of the employees of the contractor and its subcontractors.

Finally, the Court rejected the claim the defense should be rejected because the plaintiff’s immediate employer was not a party to the contract. As discussed in Spears, the law provides that the contract establishing statutory employment can be with either the plaintiff’s immediate employer or the plaintiff’s statutory employer, and Poly America qualified as the plaintiff’s statutory employer under the “two contract” theory because the work that Poly America subcontracted to the plaintiff’s immediate employer (Poly Trucking) was included within Poly America’s “STANDARD PURCHASE ORDER” contract with Exxon.

The Spears opinion highlights that the statutory defense should be maintained, even under unusual facts, when the requirements of La. RS 23:1061 are satisfied.

Is timing everything where workers compensation benefits are forfeited based on fraud? It depends…

In Moran v. Rouse’s Enterprises, LLC, 19-2392019(La. App.5 Cir. 12/26/19)- – – So. 3d – – -, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit held that there is a forfeiture of all benefits when a worker’s compensation claimant commits fraud, regardless of when the fraudulent conduct occurs. The court declined to follow opinions from the First and Third Circuits concluding otherwise.

In Moran, the claimant obtained treatment for injuries to her back, right knee, and right shoulder after a slip and fall at work for Rouses supermarket. In her deposition, the claimant Moran testified that she experienced knee pain only once before her fall; it was “years ago” and not “serious.” Moran also claimed that she experienced no prior shoulder or back pain. However, medical records established:

•             Complaints of knee pain on at least 8 separate occasions between 2012 and the job injury;

•             Complaints of right knee, right wrist, and back pain after a slip and fall in 2013; and

•             A right shoulder impingement diagnosis 2 months before the on-the-job accident.

Rouses and its workers compensation carrier affirmatively alleged a violation of La. R.S. 23:1208, Louisiana’s workers compensation fraud statute, following the claimant’s deposition. Paragraphs “A” and “E” of section 1208 provide in pertinent part:

A.            It shall be unlawful for any person… to willfully make a false statement or representation… for the purpose of obtaining or defeating any benefit or payment under…this Chapter.    

***

E.            Any employee violating this Section shall… forfeit any right to compensation benefits under this Chapter.

As part of their fraud defense, the defendants specifically denied responsibility for all worker’s compensation benefits, i.e. benefits that that might have otherwise been due both before and after the fraudulent deposition testimony.

Following trial, the workers compensation judge determined that Moran carried her burden of proving the occurrence of on-the-job injury and disability. Nevertheless, the trial court also ruled that the claimant made false statements for the purpose of obtaining workers compensation benefits in violation of section 1208, thereby forfeiting the right to both the pre and post-deposition benefits that she was claiming.

On appeal, Moran argued that the forfeiture requirement of section 1208 applies prospectively only. Moran cited opinions from the Louisiana First and Third Circuits. After addressing the statute and the case law, the Moran court affirmed the decision of the workers compensation judge finding that the forfeiture of benefits provided for in of Section 1208 is clear and unambiguous. The opinion states that “…if the legislature had intended to limit the application … it would have clearly expressed that in the statute.”

There are no Louisiana Supreme Court opinions which specifically address whether the Section 1208 forfeiture applies retroactively or prospectively only. Given the defined split in the Louisiana appellate courts, the issue is ripe for consideration by the state’s highest court.


Ed is a Keogh Cox partner who litigates Worker’s Compensation, automobile and premises liability as well as subrogation claims. He is an avid runner and enjoys traveling with his wife Jennifer and their three children.