old-meets-new-1222960-1024x685Owning a business can be a daunting task and often times requires the assistance of outside contractors to complete various maintenance items and to aid in the upkeep of the premises. However, many merchants and customers fail to realize that the merchant may be liable for the actions of a subcontractor.  Just how liable was the subject of a recent lawsuit out of New Iberia.  

In this case, Patricia Ann Thompson filed a lawsuit against a Winn-Dixie grocery store in New Iberia, Louisiana after slipping and falling on a puddle in the freezer section of the store. Winn-Dixie contracted with a cleaning service which in turn contracted with KAP Cleaning Services (“KAP”) to clean the store. KAPS’s employee rolled up a mat to clean the floor in front of the freezer where Ms. Thompson fell.  Moving this mat caused water to be exposed and ultimately led to Ms. Thompson slipping and falling on the grocer’s premise and sustaining injury. The Trial Court held that Winn-Dixie was 30 percent at fault and KAP was 70 percent at fault. Yet, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal amended the distribution of fault and held that Winn-Dixie was 100 percent liable for Ms. Thompson’s injuries. The Court of Appeal supported its decision on two grounds.  First, the Court of Appeal found that Winn-Dixie as the merchant was statutorily not permitted to share liability with a subcontractor.  Second, the Court of Appeal found the contractual arrangement between the two parties allowed for operational control by Winn-Dixie over KAP’s employees which would not shield it from liability for a subcontractor’s actions.  Winn-Dixie appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.  

Generally, a merchant owes a duty to those on their premises to exercise reasonable care to keep its floors in a reasonably safe condition and to keep the store free of hazardous conditions under  La. R.S. 9: 2800.6. However, when a merchant hires a subcontractor it can be more difficult for a court to assign fault.  Generally, a principal is not liable for the actions of a subcontractor unless the principal retains the right to supervise or control the subcontractor’s work. See Sys. Contractors Corp. v. Williams & Associates Architects, 769 So. 2d 777 (La. Ct. App. 2000).    La. C.C. art. 2323 and La. C.C. art. 2324 do not eliminate or make any exceptions for a merchant’s liability under La. R.S. 9:2800.6 but rather provide for comparative fault.  Louisiana courts will apportion fault based on parties’ knowledge and control over the condition that created peril.  See Watson v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Insurance Co., 469 So. 2d 967 (La. 1985) Under the Watson factor test, courts assess: (1) whether the conduct resulted from inadvertence or involved an awareness of the danger; (2) how great a risk was created by the conduct; (3) the significance of what was sought by the conduct; (4) the ability of the actor, whether superior or inferior, and (5) any circumstances which might require the actor to proceed in haste without proper thought.

healthcare-upclose-1322372-1024x768Because of the highly technical aspect of seeking relief from the court system, someone unfamiliar with the legal process can be confused and frustrated by the litigation process. This circumstance can be intensified by the harm done and the matter being litigated. Mr. William Matthews, the surviving husband of Mrs. Geranda Matthews, faced this exact problem when filing a medical malpractice claim against two of his wife’s physicians and Louisiana State University Health Systems.

In 2009, Mrs. Matthews went to the hospital complaining of pain. Unbeknownst to the Matthews at the time, the pain was caused by lung cancer. Allegedly, two physicians at Moss Regional Medical Center failed to properly diagnose and treat her cancer until April 2010. The plaintiff also alleged that, because of the physicians’ failure to properly diagnose and treat her, cancer attached to her spinal cord, which caused intense pain, eventually paralysis, and she later passed away.

A claim was submitted to a medical review board, which found that the physician breached the standard of care.  Subsequently, a medical malpractice lawsuit was filed with the Judicial District Court for the Parish of Calcasieu. Mr. Matthews also filed a motion for summary judgment on liability, causation, and damages. Louisiana State University Health Systems, the Defendant, opposed the motion asserting that there was a factual dispute over whether Ms. Matthews pre-existing condition contributed to her damages.  After a hearing, the District Court granted the motion for summary judgment on the issues of liability and causation, leaving calculating damages for another motion for summary judgment or trial. Louisiana State University Health Systems appealed the judgment to the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal.   

outdoor-1436934-1024x768Workers compensation laws require an employee to be injured within the course of employment to qualify for benefits. However, what happens when an employee is injured without any witnesses present? How can the employee prove that the accident really happened? This case out of Calcasieu Parish demonstrates the burden for a workers’ compensation claimant in Louisiana to prove an unwitnessed accident.

Thomas Gibson was employed by Resin Systems (“Resin”) as a maintenance man and was injured while loading iron beams in December of 2012. On January 28, 2013, Mr. Gibson filed Form 1008, a disputed claim for compensation, against Resin and its insurer LUBA Casualty Insurance Company, claiming that he injured a muscle in his back. Resin filed a general denial and disputed that Mr. Gibson was injured at work. Following a trial, the Workers Compensation Judge (“WCJ”) found that Mr. Gibson suffered a compensable injury and that Resin owed both penalties for failure to pay benefits and also attorneys fees for failure to reasonably controvert the claim. Resin appealed the WCJ’s judgment to the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal.  

Louisiana’s Supreme Court has outlined the burden of proof for a workers’ compensation claimant to prove an unwitnessed accident. An employee may prove by testimony alone that an unwitnessed accident has occurred when: (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. See Bruno v. Harbert International, Inc., 593 So.2d 357 (La. 1992). The fact-finder’s determinations as to whether the worker’s testimony is credible and whether the burden of proof has been met are factual determinations that are not be disturbed on appeal without a showing of manifest error.

pancakes-2-1319096-717x1024Sexual harassment in the workplace is unfortunately all too common.  While a victim of such harassment might feel entirely justified in filing a lawsuit against his or her employer, the harassing conduct might not be bad enough to survive a motion for summary judgment.  Just how bad does a work environment have to be for a harassment victim to have a potentially successful claim?  This was the issue in a recent case out of the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal.   

In this case, Ruba Management (“Ruba”) operated an IHOP restaurant in Boutte, Louisiana.  Kelly Matherne worked at IHOP as a server and Sharetha Tart as a cook.  Both worked there for about a month.  Shortly after being hired, Ms. Matherne reported suffering physical and verbal sexual harassment from four co-workers:  three cooks and her weekend manager.   She complained on several occasions to various members of Ruba’s management team about the cooks’ actions however neglected to report the manager’s actions.  Ms.Tart made similar claims and made reports to management.  The harassment allegations were recorded in an IHOP record book kept for such allegations. The weekday manager reviewed video footage from cameras in the restaurant but no actionable conduct could be seen.  Lisa Garrison, the store manager, heard of the sexual harassment claims and reviewed the video footage as well and did not see any evidence of sexual harassment. Nevertheless, the alleged harassers were assigned to different shifts so they would not interact with Ms. Matherne or Ms. Tart.  Ms. Matherne and Ms.Tart soon after quit and filed a lawsuit against Ruba alleging hostile work environment due to sexual harassment and constructive discharge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The  United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted Ruba’s motion for summary judgment.  Mr. Matherne and Ms. Tart then filed an appeal with Fifth Circuit.  

To establish a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must prove five elements of which only two were at issue in this case: 1) the harassment complained of affected employment and  2) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment in question and failed to take prompt remedial action.  See Royal v. CCC & R Tres Arboles, L.L.C., 736 F.3d 396, 401 (5th Cir. 2013).  For harassment to be actionable, it has to be sufficiently severe or pervasive to change the plaintiff’s employment atmosphere thus creating an abusive environment.  Offensive conduct that includes teasing, comments, or mild isolated incidents will not withstand a motion for summary judgment.   

drywall-mess-1506462-1024x683Do you know someone who owns a condo or a home? In some instances, the drywall used to construct the condo complex or home is built from Chinese-Manufactured Drywall.  From 2005-2008 Chinese Drywall was imported into the U.S. and used in the construction of thousands of buildings. Strangely, residents who lived in those buildings began to notice corrosion of metal building components, failure of electrical wiring and in some cases, even physical ailments that ranged from skin irritation to respiratory problems. Ralph Mangiarelli was one the residents who suffered injuries but of a rather different kind.

Mr. Mangiarelli owned a condo unit at Lauderdale One Condominium complex in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Sixty-Fifth and One, L.L.C. (“Sixty-Fifth”) developed the complex and Banner Supply Company Pompano, L.L.C. (“Banner”) supplied the drywall used to construct the complex. The Lauderdale One Complex had two buildings called “Building 1” and “Building 2.” Only Building 1 was built using Chinese Drywall.  Mr. Mangiarelli owned a condo unit in Building 2.   

Mr. Mangiarelli and other Building 2 residents filed a class action lawsuit in Florida asserting that Building 2 residents suffered a loss in market value for their condos because of the association with Building 1’s Chinese drywall.  All federal actions alleging damages resulting from Chinese Drywall were transferred in 2009 to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  

sign-1230883-1024x768Drivers always have a duty to drive with a standard of care that can ensure the cars immediately around them are safe from a collision. But how far does that duty reach? That was the question when a Parish of Calcasieu man entered the highway from the shoulder which resulted in only the first and second cars behind him to slow down, while a third following car was forced off of the road.

The Defendant, David Majoria, was an employee of Groendyke Transport when he entered Interstate 210 from the shoulder of the road. When Mr. Majoria entered the highway it caused the vehicle behind him with an unknown driver to brake. A second vehicle behind Mr. Majoria was driven by the plaintiff’s brother, who also braked. The third vehicle in the lineup was an eighteen to twenty-foot camper, driven by Plaintiff Shane Maylen.   

Mr. Maylen was driving a truck towing an eighteen to a twenty-foot camper and a sixteen-foot boat when he attempted to brake after Mr. Majoria’s car entered the highway.  Mr. Maylen’s truck veered off of the highway and onto the shoulder of the road where his vehicle jack-knifed and caused a right-shoulder injury. No other vehicle was involved in the collision.

anvil-and-hammer-1176425-1024x681An employee injured during the course of employment is generally entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. But can the actions of the employee in their free time affect the continuation of benefits? That was the case for a Parish of Lafayette employee who decided to perform side jobs involving heavy manual labor while collecting workers’ compensation benefits.

Donovan Meche was employed by Supreme Service & Specialty Company. Mr. Meche injured his mid- and lower back in November 2012 while swinging a sledge hammer. Mr. Meche saw several doctors to treat his back pain. The first orthopedic surgeon Mr. Meche saw recommended that he not work and undergo physical therapy. The next orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Heard, prescribed medication and physical therapy. Dr. Heard placed exact physical limitations which limited Mr. Meche to lifting ten pounds and sitting and standing no more than twenty minutes.

Supreme later obtained an independent medical examination of Mr. Meche which found that Mr. Meche was not able to return to his former job, but he could perform “sedentary or light duty.” Supreme offered Mr. Meche light-duty work and terminated Mr. Meche’s benefits.  Mr. Meche accepted the light-duty work, but only worked six hours over three painful days. Mr. Meche did not return to work for Supreme, but he did subsequently perform heavy manual labor working for his neighbor erecting an awning at his house and assisting a flooring contractor. Dr. Heard was not informed of these activities.

chemical-stuff-1-1489274-1024x768When multiple companies work together on a project that causes an injury how is liability decided between the companies? That was the case when two Parish of Jackson truck drivers and their trucks were sprayed with acid from a broken hose. The two companies in charge of the project pointed the finger at each other and tried to avoid liability. This case deals with issues of negligence in inspection and the importance of causation in a negligence claim.

Two independent contractor truck drivers, Gregory Robert and Earl Pania, were hired by Turner Specialty Services (Turner) to supply truckloads of hydrochloric acid to clean pulp mill tanks for RockTenn CP, L.L.C. (RockTenn).  Mr. Robert’s truck was the first to pump acid into the tank while Mr. Pania waited to go next. Turner employee William Thomas pumped nine gallons of acid when the measuring gauge stopped. Mr. Thomas stopped pumping, checked his equipment supplied by Turner, and found no problem. RockTenn was asked to check its equipment and RockTenn found no problem and instructed Mr. Thomas to resume pumping acid. The acid still did not pump.

Mr. Thomas increased the pressure on Turner’s pump on his next attempt. The Turner hose ruptured, sprayed Mr. Thomas with acid, as well as Mr. Robert and Mr. Pania’s trucks. Mr. Robert and Mr. Pania also claimed to have come into contact with the acid fumes and that their trucks were damaged from the acid.

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Employers and workers’ compensation insurance companies are continually looking for ways to cut their workers’ compensation claim amounts. For the injured employee, a workers’ compensation claim is a new process. But for the employer and insurance company reducing costs is a continual process. This litigation can even continue to happen years after winning an initial award. This was the case for a Parish of Lafayette employee in a recent case in the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal. Doctor examinations and testimony about an injury can always be required and, as in this case, improvement of an employee’s condition for the better can call for a reduction in workers’ compensation benefits.

Viel Olivier was a self-employed carpenter who was injured in 2003 while unloading a miters saw from his truck. He had contracted with LUBA Workers’ Compensation for his workers’ compensation insurance. Initially, Mr. Olivier was determined to be temporarily and totally disabled and was awarded workers’ compensation benefits.

LUBA later filed a motion to modify Mr. Olivier’s benefits because LUBA believed that Mr. Olivier was capable of light duty work and was no longer temporary and totally disabled from the injury. Mr. Olivier objected to this change and argued that LUBA was unable to meet its burden of proof with regard to a change in circumstances because the evidence was essentially the same as it had been at the previous hearing.

decadencia-1179583-1024x777Generally, plaintiffs bring an action against an adverse party to be made whole again in some way. Bringing a claim is a remedy seeking process. But, can a claimant’s inaction cause the proceeding to be dismissed? The Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal recently answered this question in the affirmative in a case out of Jefferson Parish.  

Kevin Lewis filed a petition against Digital Cable alleging tortious conduct and seeking damages for injuries he sustained while their employee.  A year later on November 17, 2009, the Twenty-Fourth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Jefferson entered a preliminary default against Digital Cable. On September 16, 2014, nearly five years later, Mr. Lewis filed a motion for confirmation of the default judgment. Digital Cable filed a motion for dismissal for abandonment asserting that since more than three years had passed since Mr. Lewis’ last step in the case, an order of dismissal was required. Mr. Lewis opposed this motion and argued that abandonment was interrupted on November 28, 2011, because he served a notice of deposition for his physician, Dr. Ogbuokiri. Digital Cable argued that the notice of deposition entered into evidence did not contain a certificate of service thus there was no proof that the notice had actually been served on all parties; a requirement to interrupt abandonment.    On January 13, 2015, the Trial Court signed an order dismissing the case for abandonment.

Mr. Lewis filed a motion to vacate the order and his motion was heard on March 2, 2015.   Mr. Lewis once again argued that the abandonment period was interrupted by the deposition notice.  His lawyer, Pius Obioha, testified that a signed notice of deposition and certificate of service was mailed to Dr. Ogbuokiri and to Digital Cable’s agent.  It seems that at the 2015 hearing, a certificate of service obtained from Dr. Ogbuikiri’s office was introduced into evidence, however, its authenticity was questionable.   When questioned as to why Mr. Obioha, as the lawyer, did not have a copy of the certificate he testified that someone in his office must have forgotten to make a copy and that he did not really look very hard for it. He did allegedly have the presence of mind to remember physically placing the notice and certificate in the mail; a fact not corroborated and supported solely by his own testimony.     The Trial Court concluded that the notice of deposition should be admitted into evidence yet as an unauthenticated piece of evidence.  Unable to authenticate the notice, the Trial Court upheld the dismissal order.   Mr. Lewis appealed to the Fifth Circuit.