Category: Injury

Employer Finds Safe Harbor for Mailing Benefits Timely

When an employee is injured on the job and the employee’s request for workers’ compensation benefits is disputed, La. R.S. 23:1201.1 allows an employer to request a preliminary determination hearing (“PDH”) with the Office of Workers’ Compensation (“OWC”). If the workers’ compensation judge rules at the PDH that benefits are owed, the employer has ten days to comply with the judge’s ruling. The First Circuit recently ruled that an employer can find “safe harbor” if it technically complies with the rigorous deadlines of the statute, which if missed can have profound consequences, subjecting the employer to penalties and attorney fees.

In Kilbourne v. Dixon Correctional Institute, the court recently affirmed a ruling that found an employer complied with La. R.S. 23:1201.1 and could not be subject to penalties or attorney’s fees when it mailed the disputed workers compensation benefits within ten days of the judge’s ruling at the PDH. The ruling was affirmed even though the employee did not receive payment within ten days of the hearing.

The employer in Kilbourne stopped issuing weekly workers compensation benefits after two doctors found the claimant’s ongoing complaints were unrelated to the work accident and the claimant could return to full duty work. The employee then filed a disputed claim with the OWC and requested reinstatement of his benefits. He also requested an award of penalties and attorney’s fees because he claimed the employer’s suspension of indemnity benefits was arbitrary and capricious. The employer requested a PDH to address these issues.

The OWC judge issued a preliminary determination that although the employee was owed supplemental benefits from the date his payments of benefits stopped, the employer was not arbitrary and capricious in its decision to stop payment. Within ten days of the mailing of the PDH ruling, the employer issued and mailed benefit checks to the employee and filed a form with the OWC to provide notice the employer was paying the benefits. Nevertheless, the employee disagreed with the PDH ruling and the matter went to trial.

At trial, the employee argued that he should have received penalties, attorney fees, and interest on the back benefits paid after the PDH ruling. The employee argued the employer failed to comply with section 1201.1 because he did not receive the indemnity benefits until more than ten days after the PDH ruling. However, evidence showed the benefit payments were postmarked and mailed within ten days of the receipt of PDH ruling.

Accordingly, the trial court found that the employer was immune from an award of penalties and attorney fees pursuant to the “safe harbor” provision of section 1201.1. Interest also could not be owed on back pay when the employer complied with the statute. The First Circuit affirmed this decision on appeal. Although providing the claimant funds within 10 days of the PDH ruling remains the best practice for an employer, this ruling informs employers that they should find safe harbor from what could be significant penalties and attorney’s fees if they meet the technical requirements of the statute and mail their compliance with the judge’s ruling within ten days of the PDH.

Case Reference: Kilbourne v. Dixon Correctional Institute, 2022-0455,(La. App. 1 Cir. 11/4/22) ____So. 3d ___,2022 WL 16706951.

Supreme Court Establishes Shifting Burden of Proof for Additional Medical Opinions (“AMO”)

Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1464 allows a defendant to select a physician to perform a physical and/or mental examination of a plaintiff to challenge the plaintiff’s claimed physical and mental injuries. This is called an Additional Medical Opinion (AMO); this was previously referenced as an Independent Medical Examination (IME). Earlier this year, the Louisiana Supreme Court, outlined the “good cause” requirement of the statute—an essential element required to proceed with an AMO. But, what remained as a question was the scope of an AMO and which party had the burden to deal with requested restrictions on the physician’s medical exam. This question was answered: In Augustine v. Safeco Insurance Company of Oregon, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that after “good cause” has been shown for the examination, the party seeking to limit the scope of the AMO bears the burden to justify the restrictions.  

In Augustine, a sequel to Hicks v. USAA General Indemnity Company, Et al,  the Court held that if the party to be examined for the AMO, usually the plaintiff, wants to place limits upon the examination, that party then has the burden of proof to justify the need for any restrictions or limitations with competent evidence. This ruling appears to show a trend in which the Court is confirming a defendant’s ability to obtain an AMO to support its defenses to a personal injury claim.  Augustine follows another Supreme Court decision from March of 2022, in which the Court held that a party establishes “good cause” for an AMO if that party shows a “reasonable nexus” between the requested examination and the condition in controversy. See Hicks v. USAA General Indemnity Company, Et al. The Hicks decision eased the hurdles that defendants faced when seeking to compel AMOs pursuant to Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1464. For more information on the Hicks decision, see our prior blog here. Supreme Court Clarifies “Good Cause” for Additional Medical Opinion (“AMO”) (keoghcox.com)

In Augustine, the defendants requested an AMO. The plaintiff agreed to the examination, but the parties were unable to agree on “certain restrictions” the plaintiff sought to impose on the scope of the examination. The defendants ultimately filed a Motion to Compel regarding this issue. The District Court limited the examination to only those tests that the plaintiff’s treating physicians had performed. The District Court also noted that it did not want the AMO to turn into a “fishing expedition.” The Court of Appeal denied the defendant’s request for review of the Trial Court’s decision. The defendants then sought relief from the Supreme Court, which vacated the Trial Court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court set forth the burden of proof each party has in the context of a Motion to Compel an AMO. As outlined in Hicks, the party requesting the AMO initially has the burden to establish “good cause” for the AMO. Importantly, the Augustine court found that once “good cause” has been found, “the court should presume that the examination will be conducted in a reasonable manner.” Because it is presumed the examination will be conducted reasonably, if a party opposing the AMO wants to place restrictions on the examination, the burden now shifts to that party to establish “special circumstances” that justify the restrictions they request. To meet this burden, the opposing party must produce “competent evidence” to establish (1) the need for the restriction and (2) that harm that will result if the restrictions are not imposed.  The type of evidence that may support AMO restrictions under Augustine likely will vary depending on the unique facts of each case. However, Hicks and its “sequel,” Augustine, provide clarification and guidance to parties seeking to compel or limit an AMO under article 1464.

Case References:

Augustine v. Safeco Insurance Company of Oregon, 2021-01753 (La. 10/1/22), __ So.3d __.  

Hicks v. USAA General Indemnity Company, Et al., 2021-00840 (La. 3/25/22), 339 So.3d 1106.

Written by Chad A. Sullivan and George A. Wright

Supreme Court Settles Circuit Split on Right to Appeal Summary Judgment

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently ruled that a co-defendant who pleads comparative fault as an affirmative defense may appeal a summary judgment that dismisses a co-defendant, even when the plaintiff did not file an appeal. The Court’s decision in Amedee v. Aimbridge Hospitality resolved a circuit split among the Louisiana Courts of Appeal regarding this issue.

The Amedee plaintiff filed a personal injury suit against multiple defendants including the City of New Orleans and Premium Parking of South Texas, LLC. After discovery, the City of New Orleans filed a Motion for Summary Judgment seeking dismissal from the suit. The plaintiff did not oppose the city’s motion. Premium Parking was the only party to file an opposition. The trial court granted the city’s motion and dismissed it from the suit. Premium Parking appealed the court’s judgment.

The Fourth Circuit did not address the merits of Premium Parking’s appeal. Instead, the court dismissed the appeal because it found Premium Parking did not have a legal right to appeal the city’s dismissal when the plaintiff did not appeal the judgment.

The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the appellate court’s ruling. The Court noted that “to prohibit appellate review of a summary judgment by a co-defendant, even where a plaintiff did not appeal, diminishes the search for truth—the object of a lawsuit—and denies a defendant the ability to fully defend itself.” To reach this conclusion, the Court first asked, who may appeal a judgment?

To answer this question, the Court looked to La. C.C.P. art. 2082 and observed the article makes no restriction regarding what party may appeal a final judgment. Further, the Court noted that the right to an appeal is even extended third parties, not involved in the suit, when that third party is allegedly aggrieved by the judgment. See La. C.C.P. art. 2086.

The Court also considered a defendant’s right to appeal in the context of Louisiana’s pure comparative fault system and summary judgments. Under La. C.C. art. 2323, Louisiana’s comparative fault statute, the fault of all parties is to be quantified. La. C.C.P. art. 966(G), provides that when summary judgment is granted in favor of a party or non-party to a suit, the fault of the dismissed party may not be considered in any subsequent allocation of fault in the matter.

The Court noted that while art. 966(G) precludes an allocation of the fault of a party dismissed under the statute, it does not limit the right of a defendant to appeal the dismissal of a co-defendant. No statute limited a defendant’s right to appeal a summary judgment only to those situations where a plaintiff also filed an appeal. Therefore, a defendant who hopes to keep a co-defendant in the case so that fault still may be allocated to the dismissed party at trial now may appeal the co-defendant’s dismissal, even when the plaintiff fails to do so.

Case Reference: Amedee v. Aimbridge Hosp. LLC, 2021-01906 (La. 10/1/22), — So.3d —, 2022 WL 12338929.

Outdoor Living:  Federal Court Rules That Uneven Terrain in Parking Lot Does Not Present an Unreasonable Risk of Harm

A federal court for the Middle District of Louisiana recently ruled that a 1½ inch elevation change in a Walmart parking lot did not present an unreasonable risk of harm to the plaintiff patron in Lacaze v. Walmart Stores, Inc. The case involved a slip and fall/trip and fall accident in the parking lot of Walmart’s Burbank Drive store in Baton Rouge. The defendant moved to dismiss the suit where the plaintiff claimed she tripped and fell as she crossed the area where the black asphalt parking lot adjoined the concrete crosswalk as pictured below.

In the area where the asphalt meets the crosswalk, the surface presented a ¼ inch to 1½ inch change in elevation. Plaintiff admitted the black pavement was distinct in appearance and color from the concrete crosswalk. Surveillance showed that plaintiff looked down at her cell phone at the time she tripped and fell. Though in a high pedestrian traffic area, Wal-Mart maintained this was the first reported incident.

The Court found the condition was open and obvious and did not present an unreasonable risk of harm. To reach this decision, the Court made the following observations:

  1. Parking lots have clear and apparent utility. Crosswalks do as well. Crosswalks give patrons a designated area to traverse the lot safely.
  2. The likelihood and magnitude of the risk posed by the condition was low. The Court noted it is common for surfaces of parking lots and sidewalks to be irregular, and no other patrons reported problems or accidents.
  3. The cost of preventing the harm was high. The Court would not consider only the cost of fixing the specific injury-causing defect. Rather, it considered the cost of eliminating all defects in the Walmart parking lot.
  4. Plaintiff conducted an ordinary commercial activity that was not dangerous in nature.

The Court concluded that all but factor four pointed to a single conclusion: the 1½ inch elevation difference did not pose an unreasonable risk of harm. The Court reached this conclusion even though the plaintiff retained an expert who gave opinions regarding possible violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and OSHA regulations. The expert’s opinions were insufficient to defeat summary judgment when the condition was open and obvious. In reaching its ultimate conclusion, the Court joined with several other courts, including the following:

  • Chambers v. Vill. of Moreauville, where a one-and-one half inch deviation did not present an unreasonable risk of harm;
  • Reed v. Wal-Mart Stores, where a height variance of one-fourth to one-half inch between concrete blocks in parking lot did not present an unreasonable risk of harm; and
  • Boyle v. Board of Sup’rs, Louisiana State University, where a depression of up to one inch in a sidewalk did not pose unreasonable risk of harm.

Case References: Lacaze v. Walmart Stores, Inc., No. CV 20-696-JWD-EWD, 2022 WL 4227240 (M.D. La. Sept. 13, 2022); Chambers v. Vill. of Moreauville, 2011-0898 (La. 01/24/12), 85 So.3d 593; Reed v. Wal-Mart Stores, 97-1174 (La. 03/04/98), 708 So.2d 362; and Boyle v. Board of Sup’rs, Louisiana State University, 96-1158 (La. 01/14/97), 685 So.2d 1080.

Louisiana Appeal Court Finds Nonparty “Nonresident” Industrial Site Owner Is Subject to Louisiana’s Subpoena Power

Can a nonresident corporation, who is not a party to a pending action, be compelled to respond to discovery in Louisiana? The Louisiana Fifth Circuit says YES. See Molaison v Cust-O-Fab Specialty Services, LLC, a case where Keogh Cox successfully handled the appeal.

The Molaison case involved an industrial accident claim where catastrophic injuries were alleged. In this context, the appellate court found that a non-resident company has sufficient presence in Louisiana to subject it to the court’s subpoena power. However, the trial court must first assess the scope of discovery to ensure it is calculated to lead to discoverable evidence and is not too onerous.

In Molaison, the owner of an industrial plant who employed the plaintiff claimed that its nonresident status prevented the parties from requiring it to respond to discovery by deposition or otherwise. The plant owner cited a Louisiana Supreme Court case that held personal jurisdiction, without more, did not subject a nonparty, out-of-state defendant to submit to discovery in this state.

But, in this case, the nonparty maintained a facility in Louisiana and employed the plaintiff. As a consequence, the Molaison court found that the Louisiana “discovery rules control” and “the trial court did not err in finding that (the company) was subject to the subpoena power of a Louisiana court.”

The contractor established it issued the subpoena to obtain evidence from the chemical plant owner that was relevant to the allocation of fault under Louisiana’s pure comparative fault tort system. Therefore, the appeal court reasoned that the nonresident plant owner was subject to the subpoena, “even if (the company) is not obligated to pay in tort by operation of workers compensation immunity.”

Of note, the court also held that the review of a discovery order that finds a nonresident company subject to the subpoena power is a final appealable judgment, as opposed to an interlocutory order subject the discretionary review on supervisory writ.

Case Reference: Molaison v Cust-O-Fab Specialty Services, LLC, 21-585 (La. App 5 Cir. 6/1/22); 343 So. 3d 866.

MVA Plaintiffs Sentenced by Federal Judge for Staging Accidents

The United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana recently announced that two defendants, Doniesha Gibson and Erica Lee, had been sentenced for crimes related to staging automobile collisions with tractor-trailers. The sentences were announced as part of a criminal investigations known as “Operation Sideswipe.” The years-long operation has produced multiple pleas and convictions, including a guilty plea from an involved attorney last year.

Gibson admitted that she was a passenger in a staged accident that occurred on October 15, 2015. A co-defendant intentionally drove the vehicle she occupied into a bus on the interstate. Gibson retained an attorney and filed a suit for damages. Claims related to this accident later settled for $667,500.00

Lee also admitted to filing a suit to claim injuries after the driver of the vehicle she occupied intentionally crashed into a tractor trailer on September 6, 2017. The claims for this suit settled for $30,000.00

United States District Judge Sarah S. Vance sentenced Gibson to 17 months incarceration plus 3 years of supervised release and ordered Gibson to pay restitution in the amount of the settlement. Lee was sentenced to serve 3 years of probation and 100 hours of community service. She was also ordered to pay restitution.

While “Operation Sideswipe” did not involve the typical claimants, it reminds of the need for vigilance in assessing accident claims.

Supreme Court Abrogates Louisiana’s “Professional Rescuer’s Doctrine”

Historically, Louisiana law provided that a professional rescuer injured in the performance of his or her duties “assumes the risk” of an injury and is not entitled to damages. See Worley v. Winston, 550 So.2d 694, 696 (La. App. 2 Cir.), writ denied, 551 So.2d 1342 (La. 1989). This is known as the Professional Rescuer’s Doctrine and applied as a defense to claims raised by firefighters, policeman, and others. The doctrine prevented recovery because the professional rescuer “assumed the risk” of injury. Recently, the Louisiana Supreme Court in Doe v. McKesson, 2021-00929 (La. 3/25/22) rejected the doctrine as a bar to suit by the professional rescuer.

In Doe, the Supreme Court of Louisiana accepted a certified question from the Fifth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals as to the viability of the doctrine. In response, the Supreme Court held that the Professional Rescuer’s Doctrine has been abrogated in Louisiana both legislatively under La. C.C. art. 2323 and jurisprudentially in Murray v. Ramada Inns, Inc., 521 So.2d 1123, 1132 (La. 1988).

The Court cited La. C.C. art. 2323(A), which provides that the fault of “all persons […] shall be determined” in a civil action. Subsection (B) of the article provides this rule applies “to any claim for recovery of damages for injury, death, or loss asserted under any law or legal doctrine or theory of liability, regardless of the basis of liability.”

In Murray, the Supreme Court previously held that the doctrine of assumption of risk no longer had a place in Louisiana tort law following the adoption of comparative fault. Nevertheless, the Murray Court identified two exceptions:

  • Cases “where the plaintiff, by oral or written agreement, expressly waives or releases a future right to recover damages from the defendant,” if “no public policy concerns would invalidate such a waiver, the plaintiff’s right to recover damages may be barred on a release theory;” and
  • “[I]n the sports spectator or amusement park cases (common law’s “implied primary” assumption of risk cases).”

Murray, 521 So.2d at 1134. (internal citations omitted).

The Doe court observed that Murray provided no exception relative to professional rescuers. The Court further observed that, while the legislature had enacted statutes that bar plaintiff recovery in other settings, no such statute had been passed to codify the Professional Rescuer’s Doctrine.

Although professional rescuers injured in the performance of their duties may still be found at fault, the is no longer an automatic bar to suit.

Supreme Court Clarifies “Good Cause” for Additional Medical Opinion (“AMO”)

In cases that involve physical injury, defendants often request an “Additional Medical Opinion [AMO]” from a physician of their choice as part of the defense of the case. Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1464 allows a defendant to select a physician to perform a physical and/or mental examination of a plaintiff to challenge the plaintiff’s claimed physical and mental injuries. At times, a plaintiff may voluntarily agree to the examination. However, if an objection is lodged to the requested examination, a defendant must proceed with a Motion to Compel the Additional Medical Opinion. In the context of the motion, the defendant must establish the following for the AMO to be ordered pursuant to article 1464:

  1. The mental or physical condition of a party is in controversy; and
  2. “Good cause” exists for the AMO.

Because Louisiana courts routinely hold that a plaintiff puts his or her physical and mental condition in “controversy” by filing suit and requesting damages for physical and mental pain and suffering, the focus of a motion for an AMO is often on the “good cause” requirement. “Good cause” is not defined in La. CCP article 1464, and its meaning is not clear. Recently, however, the Louisiana Supreme Court provided guidance on the issue in the case of Hicks v USAA General Indemnity Company, et al., holding that a showing of “good cause” requires that a moving party establish a reasonable nexus between the requested examination and the condition in controversy.

In Hicks, the defendant moved for an AMO with an orthopedic surgeon after plaintiff filed suit, alleging personal injuries to his neck, back, and arm as a result of an accident. In the context of the Motion to Compel, it was argued the plaintiff put his physical condition in controversy by alleging injury. The defendant noted plaintiff treated with two physicians, one of whom did not believe plaintiff was a surgical candidate. The defendant also maintained “good cause” existed because a plaintiff “who asserts mental or physical injury… places that mental or physical injury clearly in controversy and provides the defendant with good cause for an examination to determine the existence and extent of such asserted injury.” In support of this argument, the defendant also highlighted inconsistent medical testimony concerning plaintiff’s physical conditions and treatment in support of “good cause.”

In opposing the motion, the plaintiff argued “good cause” was absent because two physicians already had offered opinions on plaintiff’s condition and treatment.

The trial court denied defendant’s Motion to Compel AMO on grounds that “good cause” did not exist. The trial court noted that two physicians already had been deposed and that a physician selected by the defendant could review plaintiff’s medical records and the depositions of the other doctors to offer an additional medical opinion at trial. The case proceeded to trial, where the defendant introduced testimony from a physician who relied upon the materials referenced in the court’s ruling to support his medical opinion. Not surprisingly, the plaintiff argued the opinion of the defendant-selected physician should be discredited because he never examined plaintiff.

After a trial judgment in favor of plaintiff, the defendant appealed. The appeal court also concluded “good cause” did not exist for the AMO, noting the absence of “definitive guidelines as to what constitutes good cause.”  The appeal court also noted the fact that defendant had the ability to obtain the desired information by other means was relevant in deciding whether good cause was shown.

The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ decisions. It started its analysis by noting the basic premise of our system of justice: that both sides to a dispute stand on equal footing in gathering evidence and preparing for trial. It noted the AMO allowed under La. CCP article 1464 actually limits the extensive discovery permitted under Louisiana law, as it balances considerations of “sanctity of the body and the right to privacy with considerations of fairness in the judicial quest for truth.” Article 1464 seeks to achieve balance by requiring more than “relevance” for an AMO, granting the right to courts to order an AMO only when a plaintiff’s condition is “in controversy” and “good cause” supports allowing the examination. The Supreme Court also noted that an AMO may be one party’s only opportunity to independently ascertain the existence and extent of the other party’s claimed injuries.

After balancing these competing interests, the Louisiana Supreme Court found “good cause” under article 1464 requires the moving party to establish a reasonable nexus between the requested examination and the condition in controversy. The decision as to whether the moving party has demonstrated both the “in controversy” and “good cause” requirements lies in the sound discretion of the trial court. At times, the pleadings alone may contain sufficient information to establish a reasonable nexus.

As part of its decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court noted that although meeting the statute’s requirements may entitle a defendant to an examination, a defendant is not entitled to any AMO it request; reasonable limitations may still be applied. It remains the trial court’s role to balance the competing interests and rights of the parties, considering both “sanctity of the body” and the implication of one party’s privacy rights against considerations of fairness for the moving party.

After employing its analysis, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded the defendant in Hicks demonstrated “good cause” because plaintiff alleged severe injuries as a result of the accident, claimed damages, and inconsistent medical testimony concerning plaintiff’s physical condition existed. It remanded the case for a new trial.

Summary Judgment Affirmed in Premises Liability Case Upon Court’s De Novo Review

In Marrero v. I. Manheim Auctions, Inc., the plaintiff fell after he exited a building during a rainstorm and stepped off a curb into a parking lot. He claimed he stepped into a divot where asphalt had washed away. The defendant moved for summary judgment.

In opposition, the plaintiff offered an expert affidavit that cited a lack of handrails, code violations, and loose pebbles as contributing to the plaintiff’s fall. To recover in the case, the plaintiff possessed the burden under La. R.S. 9:2800.6 to establish three elements: 1) the parking lot presented an unreasonable risk of harm, 2) this risk of harm was reasonably foreseeable, and 3) the defendant possessed actual or constructive notice of the alleged defect.

The defense argued the plaintiff could not show the parking lot presented an unreasonable risk of harm that was reasonably foreseeable and produced an expert affidavit to show the divot was only 3/16” deep. Evidence also showed the plaintiff was familiar with the area where he fell. The defendant also had received no prior complaints about the area. The trial court found that the parking lot did not present an unreasonable risk of harm because the divot was only 3/16” deep and granted summary judgment.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court should not have granted summary judgment in light of the competing expert affidavits regarding whether the parking lot presented an unreasonable risk of harm. However, when a motion for summary judgment is appealed, the court uses a de novo standard of review. Under this standard, the appellate court reviews all issues and considers all evidence submitted to the trial court in its ruling.

The First Circuit affirmed summary judgment but did so for different reasons than the trial court. The Marrero court found the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence of the third element, i.e., whether the defendant knew or should have known of the defect. Because the plaintiff failed to establish a material issue of fact as to all three required elements, summary judgment was granted. Marrero reminds that appellate courts may consider facts and legal issues the trial court did not address in its ruling.

Click It: The Seat Belt Defense In Louisiana

Louisiana has exhibited a certain double standard when it comes to seat belts.  For years, Louisiana participated in the “Click It or Ticket” public service campaign that lectured on the grave dangers caused by a failure to wear seat belts and the criminal consequences for a failure to comply.  Nevertheless, and for decades, the failure to wear a seat belt was off limits as evidence to reduce a plaintiff’s recovery in a personal injury context.  But, the rule was changed: effective January 1, 2021, the “gag rule” against evidence that a plaintiff failed to wear a seat belt in an accident has been lifted. La. R.S. 32:295.1. Louisiana has no recent history with the “seat belt defense,” such that many questions arise. To frame these questions, this blog takes a quick look to cases from other states and certain guideposts that may already exist in Louisiana jurisprudence.

Like several other states, Florida has a history with the defense. In Smith v. Butterick, 769 So.2d 1056, 1058-9 (Fla.2d DCA 2000), the court outlined three elements of proof a defendant must show to prevail on the defense. Similar elements have been identified in other states. See, e.g., Law v. Superior Court In and For Maricopa County, 157 Ariz. 147, 755 P.2d 1135 (1988). Louisiana may adopt similar elements or chart a different course. The elements outlined in Smith were as follows:

1-Failure to use an available, operational seat belt

This element can be proven through testimony from the plaintiff, passengers, responding law enforcement, or other such testimony or evidence to show that a seat belt was not in use at the time of the accident.  Similarly, testimony or photographs may be used to show that the seat belt was operational.

2- Failure to use seat belt was unreasonable under the circumstances

Insofar as Louisiana and most states generally mandate the use of seatbelts, this element should be easy to demonstrate.  Therefore, unusual facts may be necessary to excuse a plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt such as an emergency trip to the hospital.

3-Plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt substantially caused or contributed to the damages

Of the three possible elements, this is likely to be the battleground. In some cases, the issue may be simple. For instance, if a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt allows their body to strike (or travel through) a windshield, it may be simple to show that the plaintiff’s (or decedent’s) failure to use a seatbelt magnified the injuries. Expert testimony may not even be needed.   In Smith, testimony from a mechanical engineer that the passenger would not have hit interior surfaces had they used a seat belt was allowed. However, will expert testimony be required in most cases and what type of expert will be needed? Engineer? Physician? Biomechanical?

Will the defendant bear the burden to prove the aggravation like they have in many national cases?  Will Louisiana courts fashion an inference or “shifting burden” approach where a prima facie showing that a plaintiff’s whose failure to wear a seat belt increased the possibility of injury would possess the burden to show their injuries would have occurred even had they used a seat belt.  In Anderson v. Watson, 953 P. 2d 1284 (Colo. 1998), the court required the defendant to only show a prima facie case of seat belt nonuse to allow the fact of nonuse to go to the jury. 

Seat belts are required because they can prevent or lessen injury. Does a defendant have to show the precise details as to how seat belt nonuse caused or magnified the injury? In Louisiana, these answers remain unclear; but these are some of the questions.

Further complications are present in cases involving alleged traumatic brain injury (TBI) and the new frontier of vestibular injuries. Louisiana courts have often rejected testimony from accident reconstruction or bio-mechanical experts for a variety of reasons, but with this statutory defense, such testimony may be critical to determine who is responsible for an alleged catastrophic loss.  States that recognize this rule have examined many factors that relate to the injuries that arise from the failure to use a seatbelt. As such, it seems inevitable that expert testimony on this issue must be considered in many nonuse cases.

No doubt, many of these questions will be the subject of litigation arising from accidents which occur after January 1, 2021. Louisiana’s double standard has ended.  What is certain is that a failure to wear a seat belt now has the potential to harm not only a plaintiff’s health, but also their chances of recovery in civil litigation.


Collin is a Keogh Cox partner who litigates injury, commercial, and legal malpractice disputes. He lives in nearby Zachary, Louisiana with his wife Melissa and three all too active children. He is an outdoorsman, a tennis player, a cook, and a hobbyist writer.

This blog was written in partnership with John P Wolff, III.

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Keogh Cox Secures Dismissal Of Alleged Chemical / Environmental Exposure Case: Worker’s Compensation Immunity

In Million v. Exxon Mobil, et al., plaintiff was diagnosed with cancer and pulmonary embolisms in 2016. Plaintiff had worked in the chemical industry for 40 years. In his suit, filed in the United States Middle District Court, plaintiff alleged that long-term exposure to toxic chemicals during his employment caused his cancer.  While the suit alleged that Million’s former employers created an unsafe work environment, he admitted in deposition that he was provided both safety equipment and safety training during his employment.

Andrew Blanchfield, managing partner at Keogh Cox, represented one of the former employers and filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to enforce the protections of Louisiana worker’s compensation law. Under the law, worker’s compensation benefits are generally an employee’s exclusive remedy against an employer for work-related injuries or illnesses. An employer is therefore entitled to immunity from tort claims unless the employee can prove that employer committed an “intentional act.”

To prevail under an intentional act theory, a plaintiff is required to show that the employer’s act was “intentional” and “substantially certain” to result in injury to the plaintiff. In support of the motion to enforce immunity, the former employers cited to plaintiff’s admissions in deposition as to the efforts made for his safety and to the absence of evidence sufficient to show intentional conduct substantially certain to cause injury. The district court granted the motion and dismissed plaintiff’s claims. This month, the dismissal was upheld by the  United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in Million v. Exxon Mobil Corp., Exxon Chem. Co./ Exxon Ref., No. 20-30002, 2020 WL 7054051 (5th Cir. Dec. 1, 2020).

This case illustrates the interplay between general Louisiana tort law and the Louisiana worker’s compensation law and shows that courts will require substantive evidence of an intentional act to maintain a tort suit against an otherwise immune employer.    


Chelsea Payne is an associate at Keogh Cox and has been practicing for three years. Her practice mainly relates to construction law and complex litigation. Chelsea enjoys playing tennis and spending time with her family.

Summary Judgment Dismissing Unwitnessed Workers’ Comp Accident Affirmed: No Corroborating Evidence

The recent decision in Gibson v. Wal-Mart Louisiana, LLC, 20-0033 (La. App. 4 Cir. 8/27/20), 2020 WL 507804 re-affirms that a workers’ compensation claim based on an unwitnessed accident is subject to pretrial dismissal where there is no corroborating evidence.

In Gibson, the plaintiff, a department manager for Walmart, claimed injury while picking up boxes. Although no one witnessed the incident, the plaintiff claimed that two managers working nearby were made aware of the accident and injuries almost immediately.

Walmart denied the claim in response to numerous “red flags.” For example, the two managers identified by the claimant denied any knowledge. Also, the first reference in a medical record to the alleged June accident came in mid-October.

Walmart filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that plaintiff did not satisfy her evidentiary burden. In response, Gibson countered that the conflict between her testimony, the co-workers’ testimony, and the medical records created genuine issues of material fact to be decided at trial. The OWC trial court granted summary judgment and the plaintiff appealed.

In affirming the dismissal, the Fourth Circuit Court determined that Gibson’s testimony, standing alone, did not create a genuine issue of material fact. The general rule regarding unwitnessed accidents in worker’s compensation cases is well defined. Under this rule, an employee may prove by his or her testimony alone that an unwitnessed accident occurred only if the employee can establish that: (1) no other evidence discredits or casts serious doubt upon the worker’s version of the incident; and (2) the worker’s testimony is corroborated by the circumstances following the alleged incident. Ardoin v. Firestone Polymers, L.L.C., 10-0245 (La. 1/19/11), 56 So. 3d 215, 218.

Because evidence such as the delay in medical treatment raised doubt and Gibson lacked other corroboration, the dismissal of her claim was upheld. Gibson reminds that questionable unwitnessed accident claims without corroborating evidence can and should be dismissed via pretrial motion, notwithstanding the “relaxed rules of evidence and procedure” in workers’ compensation courts.


Ed Stauss is a partner with Keogh Cox. His practice relates mainly to workers compensation defense and the subrogation recovery. Ed is an avid and long time fan of the professional and major college sports teams in the area. He also enjoys running year-round, from 2 milers & 5Ks in the spring and summer to half marathons and full marathons in the fall and winter.