“Who Do You Work For?!” Worker Found to be “Employee” of Another Company in Personal Injury Case Out of Natchitoches Parish

hard-hat-area-1455626-1-1024x732Getting seriously injured on the job is always a terrible experience, but what if it is unclear for purposes of a lawsuit who you even work for? You know that someone owes you compensation for your injuries, but in this recent case out of Natchitoches Parish that “someone” may not be where your employment application was filed.  

International Paper Company (“IPCO”) hired Turner Industries Group, LLC (“Turner”) to perform maintenance work on IPCO’s recovery boiler.  Garred Whotte, an employee of Turner, was sent to IPCO to construct scaffolding necessary to the maintenance work. While on the job, his feet started burning, resulting in chemical burns to his feet and ankles. Mr. Whotte brought a personal injury lawsuit against IPCO. IPCO filed a successful motion for summary judgment arguing that it was immune from a personal injury lawsuit under the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act (“Act”) which limits recovery to the provisions of the Act. The Tenth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Natchitoches specifically found that Mr. Whotte was a “statutory employee” of IPCO at the time of the injury limiting Mr. Whotte to workers’ compensation benefits. Mr. Whotte appealed to the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal.

The remedies provided to a worker under the Act are the exclusive remedy an employee can seek against his employer or principal pursuant to La. R.S. 23:1032(A)(1)(a).  A “principal” is a person who has contracted with another to perform work as part of the business at the time of worker’s injury.  The principal, as the statutory employer, is protected from tort lawsuits and given the protections of the Act as the exclusive remedy for those injured on the job.  La. R.S. 23:1061.  In the event of a contract between the principal and employer, the contract must contain language recognizing the principal as the statutory employer.  Language to this effect creates the presumption of a statutory employer, however, this presumption can be overcome only by showing that the work is not an integral part of or essential to the ability of the principal to generate their goods, products, or services.  

The Third Circuit agreed with the District Court that IPCO was the statutory employer of Mr. Whotte thus limiting Mr. Whotte to workers’ compensation benefits. Turner and IPCO had a 2009 contract and a 2012 extension specifically recognizing IPCO as the statutory employer of Turner’s employees while Turner’s employees were providing work under the agreement. In 2012, IPCO submitted a purchase order to Turner confirming both that IPCO was the statutory employer and that the scaffolding in the recovery boiler was essential to IPCO’s ability “to generate its goods, products, and/or service.” Affidavits from IPCO employees corroborated that the scaffolding done on the boiler was essential to the maintenance of the boiler.  Mr. Whotte himself admitted that the recovery boiler fueled the IPCO plant and required cleaning for the boiler to function properly thus supporting the statutory employer presumption.  The Third Circuit upheld the motion for summary judgment and the personal injury lawsuit was dismissed.  

It is important to remember the result, in this case, did not eliminate Mr. Whotte’s chance of monetary recovery, but limited it to workers’ compensation benefits.  It is not clear from the case why Mr. Whotte decided to pursue IPCO in tort rather than workers’ compensation.  One can only assume the pot at the end of the proverbial rainbow seemed quite larger in the lawsuit option.  However, the law coupled with the contracts made this case seem fairly clear that a personal injury lawsuit would be barred.  A good lawyer knows how to get the best result for their client without pursuing unnecessary and costly routes along the way.  

Additional Sources: GARRARD WHOTTE ET AL. VERSUS INTERNATIONAL PAPER COMPANY

Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Declan Chandler McGinty

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