Workplace Injury Leads to Review of Statute Interpretation

The district court dismissed the claims of Entergy, an electrical utility company, for indemnity from contractors involved with repairs to a building to which the utility company provided electrical service on the ground that the Louisiana Overhead
Power Line Safety Act (“OPLSA”) does not allow indemnification remedy. On appeal, having decided favorably for the plaintiff in the legal issue of whether OPLSA might require indemnity, the appellate court vacated the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the contractors.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, a general contractor, Carl E. Woodward, LLC, (“Woodward”), entered into a contract with Eagle Enterprises of Jefferson, Inc., the owner of the Walgreens Shopping Center. Woodward subcontracted with Stewart Interior Contractors, LLC (“Stewart”) to install framing and exterior wall material at the shopping center. In turn, Stewart subcontracted with Landaverde Construction, LLC (“Landaverde”) to assist with providing labor. On January 5, 2006, Landaverde laborers, including plaintiff, Daniel Moreno, arrived at the shopping center work site. As Mr. Moreno was standing near the scaffold and evaluating how to best disassemble it, another worker at the top of the scaffold moved a piece of metal that came in contact with both the overhead power line and the scaffolding frame. A resulting arc of electricity flashed from the scaffolding to Mr. Moreno’s body, inflicting serious burns.

In their motions for summary judgment, the contractors did not attempt to negate every element of Entergy’s indemnity claims, but instead argued that Entergy was not entitled to indemnity because, as a matter of law, the OPLSA did not provide indemnity for a utility company’s own negligence. However, the Supreme Court rejected the contractors’ argument that “all damages, costs, or expenses” under subsection (A) of La. R.S. 45:144 restricts a utility company to recovering those items only inasmuch as the utility company itself has suffered a damage to its equipment or an economic loss for a service interruption to its customers.

The starting point in the interpretation of any statute is the language of the statute itself. Words and phrases shall be read in context and shall be construed according to the common and approved usage of the language. The meaning and intent of a law is determined by considering the law in its entirety and by placing a construction on the law that is consistent with the express terms of the law and with the obvious intent of the legislature in enacting the law.

Specifically, the court reasoned that the operation of the three subsections of La. R.S. 45:144 can be restated as follows: subsection (A) describes a cause of action in favor of a utility company and against an OPLSA violator; subsection (B) requires an allocation of a degree of fault, if any, to be made at trial and any allocation against the utility company is recoverable against the OPLSA violator if the utility company has successfully proven its cause of action under subsection (A); and, if an employer is an OPLSA violator, subsection (C) erases the immunity that the employer normally enjoys under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Although the OPLSA nowhere uses the word “indemnity,” La.R.S. 45:144 effectively operates as indemnity.

This case shows how reasonable minds can differ when it comes to statute interpretation. Assembling the best legal team possible is especially important in such cases.