The Louisiana Supreme Court recently held that the workers’ compensation tort immunity provided by LSA-R.S. 23:1032 does not apply to suits by one volunteer fireman against another volunteer. See Champagne v. American Alternative Insurance Corp., 12-1697 (La. 3/19/13), — So.3d —. LSA-R.S. 23:1036 provides that workers’ compensation is the sole and exclusive remedy provided to a volunteer fireman against a fire company. Champagne clarified that this immunity does not similarly apply to claims for personal injury brought by one volunteer fireman against another.
The last sentence of LSA- R.S. 23:1036(A) states as follows:
The remedies provided herein shall constitute the exclusive remedy of the volunteer member against the fire company as provided in R.S. 23:1032.
In Champagne, the attorney for the defendants argued that the legislature’s incorporation of LSA-R.S. 23:1032 reflected the intent to extend immunity beyond the language provided by LSA-R.S. 23:1036(A). The defendants asserted that this last sentence has internal inconsistencies; the first portion of the sentence “standing in isolation, can be read to limit workers’ compensation immunity solely to the fire company, whereas its last phrase specifically incorporates La. R.S. 23:1032, which applies workers’ compensation tort immunity to officers and employees of the employer or principal.” Defendants further argued that, “to not include co-volunteers as co-employees under La. R.S. 23:1032 is to render the phrase, ‘as provided in La. R.S. 23:1032,’ superfluous and meaningless.”
The Supreme Court disagreed with the defendants’ statutory interpretation arguments. The Court stated: “[t]he fundamental question in all cases of statutory construction is legislative intent and the reasons that prompted the legislature to enact the law.” In assessing the legislative intent, the Court gave a “narrow construction” of the statute because the statute sought to provide immunity in derogation of “the delictual rights of injured workers existing in the Louisiana Civil Code.” Under this narrow construction, “every presumption should be on the side of preserving the general tort or delictual rights of an injured worker…”
Utilizing a narrow (or “strict”) construction of LSA-R.S. 23:1036, the Court found that the legislature did not expressly provide immunity to volunteer firemen. Further, the Court did not find intent to provide such immunity in the legislative history.
Champagne is not the first time a Louisiana court has commented on the application of Louisiana’s Workers’ Compensation Law to volunteer firemen. In 1994, the First Circuit held that a volunteer fireman was not an “employee” of the fire district and therefore was not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. See Genusa v. Pointe Coupee Volunteer Fire Dist. No. 4, 93-2214 (La. App. 1 Cir. 10/7/94); 644 So.2d 851. The Genusa Court reasoned that workers’ compensation did not apply when there was no employer-employee relationship, and that an employer-employee relationship does not exist without compensation.
The Champagne Court expressed its belief that LSA-R.S. 23:1036 was likely enacted in response to Genusa. However, the statute only granted volunteer members of fire companies “some workers’ compensation benefits” and did not change “the law to define a volunteer member… as an ’employee’ of the fire company for the purposes of immunity under the workers’ compensation law.” Emphasis added.
Both the Supreme Court and the appellate court in Champagne observed that a denial of immunity to volunteer firemen “may make members of the community reluctant to act as volunteers at their local department.” However, the legislature did not clearly provide for such immunity according to Champagne. It would not be surprising to see the Louisiana legislature address the issue of immunity for volunteer firemen moving forward.