Tag: slip and fall

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.

“Constructive Knowledge” in Slip and Fall Suits: Time on Your Side

Louisiana’s “slip and fall” statute La. R.S. 9:2800.6 was enacted in response to an elevated burden of proof imposed upon retailers.  To recover, a patron must prove both the existence of an unreasonably dangerous condition and that the merchant created or possessed actual or constructive knowledge of the condition.  Two recent Louisiana decisions demonstrate that the plaintiff’s burden to show knowledge is often difficult to meet.

In Fountain v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 19-669 (La. App. 3 Cir. 3/18/20), 2020 WL 1307417, Fountain entered the store while it was raining.  After shopping for 30 to 40 minutes, he visited the Garden Center and fell in a puddle of water he estimated as 8 inches by a foot and a half.  There was no direct evidence Wal-Mart was aware of the alleged defect.  Without actual knowledge, Fountain possessed the burden to demonstrate “constructive notice.”  To prove constructive notice, the plaintiff must come forward with “positive evidence showing that the damage-causing condition existed for some period to time, and that such time was sufficient to place the merchant defendant on notice of its existence.”  Under case facts, the trial court determined that Fountain had not demonstrated this “temporal” element and dismissed the case on motion practice.  The dismissal was upheld by the Louisiana Third Circuit.

In Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment, Fountain made a three-fold argument.  First, he alleged that a Wal-Mart employee told him that the water on the floor came from a lady who shook a broken umbrella in the area.  The court held that Fountain’s self-serving testimony and reliance upon a hearsay statement was insufficient to establish notice. 

Next, Fountain alleged that a manager’s testimony that a large amount of water was found in the general area showed that Wal-Mart “knew or should have known.” Nevertheless, there was no evidence as to how long the water had existed on the floor. 

Finally, Fountain cited to video surveillance showing that numerous persons could have tracked water into the area.  Distinguishing cases where employees had worked in the precise area of the hazard, the Fountain court stated “our de novo review of the record reveals Mr. Fountain failed to present evidence as to length of time the puddle was on the floor prior to the accident.  Therefore, he did not carry his burden of proving that Wal-Mart had constructive knowledge of the condition.”

Similarly, in Bryant v. Ray Brandt Dodge, Inc., 19-464 (La. App. 5 Cir. 3/17/20), 2020 WL 1270963, summary judgment was upheld where the plaintiff lacked positive evidence of how long the condition (a few spots of water) existed prior to the accident.  The plaintiff argued that an employee who used the restroom approximately five minutes before was the most likely cause of the alleged hazard. However, this argument was rejected as “mere speculation.”

In these cases, whether an unreasonably dangerous condition is present is a critical issue.  However, as seen in Bryant and Fountain, how long the condition existed is sometimes just important.  In many cases, time is not on the plaintiff’s side.


Tori works toward efficient, cost-effective resolution strategies, whether in or out of the courtroom.  When she is not in the office or in a courtroom, she can be found with her husband and two kids at ballfields, ballet recitals or her local church.

Impact of Supreme Court’s Recent “Open and Obvious” Ruling not Obvious

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently issued a ruling on the application of the “open and obvious” doctrine in slip and fall cases. The facts of Broussard v. State of Louisiana, 2012-1238 (La. 4/5/13), presented problems for both sides. A UPS driver tripped and fell over an offset between the floor and an elevator. The elevator in a State building had problems for years. One problem was that the elevator would not align properly between floors causing an offset between the floor and the elevator. However, the UPS driver delivered products to this particular State building daily and was well aware of the problem. At the time of the incident, he noticed that the elevator was not properly aligned but nevertheless attempted to pull a dolly with approximately 300 pounds of computer paper over the offset. The inertia created caused the plaintiff to lose control. Plaintiff sued the State, the owner of the building, for injury to his back.