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.