When injuries happen at work, it is often challenging to determine who is liable for damages. The question of liability is especially tricky when prison inmates are injured in work release programs. Courts must grapple not only with the employer’s potential liability, but also with the potential liability of the supervising correctional authority. The Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit faced this issue in a lawsuit brought by an inmate injured on work release in Chopin.
Edward Perkins suffered serious injuries while participating in a work release program at the MARTCO plywood facility in Chopin, Louisiana. At MARTCO, Perkins’ supervisor asked him to clean around the drop chute, which required him to get on his knees. When he got back up, Perkins slipped and attempted to brace himself by grabbing a nearby cage, which then fell on him, trapping his head under a lift.
At the time of his injury, Perkins was an inmate under the supervision of the Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) and living at the Rapides Parish Work Release Center. Perkins was transported to his job at MARTCO by the DOC, but while at work he was supervised only by his boss at MARTCO, not by the DOC. After he was injured, Perkins sued the DOC, the Sheriff overseeing the work release program, and MARTCO for negligence in Rapides Parish District Court. He also filed a Motion to Proceed in Forma Pauperis, seeking pauper status so he could avoid paying the costs of the suit. The Court determined that Perkins’ injuries did not arise out of a condition of confinement and transferred the case to Natchitoches Parish, where the MARTCO facility was located. Neither court acted on the pauper motion.
The Natchitoches Parish District Court granted motions for summary judgment filed by the Sheriff and the DOC, dismissing Perkins’ lawsuit against these defendants because it lacked merit. The Court also sanctioned Perkins’ attorney over $10,000 for bringing a frivolous lawsuit. Perkins appealed the summary judgment decision but failed to pay the costs of appeal. The Sheriff filed a motion to dismiss the appeal based on Perkins’ failure to pay costs, and the appeal was dismissed.
Perkins then appealed the court’s decision to dismiss his appeal, based on the fact that he had filed a pauper motion before the hearing on the Sheriff’s motion to dismiss. Although Perkins had not paid the costs of appeal, he had applied for pauper status which, if granted, would mean he did not have to pay those costs. He argued that since his pauper status was pending, his appeal should not be dismissed for failure to pay.
In determining whether to grant the present appeal, the Court of Appeal looked to the Louisiana law on payment of costs in appeals, La. C.C.P. art. 2126, and applicable case law. In Lousiana Bd. of Massage Therapy v. Fontenot, the Court held that the primary purpose of Article 2126 is to dismiss cases abandoned by the plaintiffs who brought them, and that appeals should only be dismissed under the clearest of circumstances. Louisiana Bd. of Massage Therapy v. Fontenot, 901 So. 2d 1232 (La. Ct. App. 2005). The circumstances in Edward Perkins’ case, the Court found, were not that clear.
The Third Circuit held that the trial court erred when it dismissed Perkins’ appeal for failure to pay costs. Because the pauper motion he filed was not properly communicated to the necessary judge, and because of the Court’s policy in favor of appeals, the trial court’s decision to dismiss Perkins’ appeal was reversed.
The Third Circuit next addressed whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment for the Sheriff and the DOC. The Court applied a four-factor test it used in Harrington v. Hebert to determine whether an employer-employee relationship existed. Harrington v. Hebert, 789 So.2d 649 (La. Ct. App. 2001). The factors include selection and engagement, payment of wages, power of dismissal, and power of control. Perkins argued that he was not an employee of MARTCO because he was not paid a wage and was not free to leave, and because he was under the supervision of the DOC. The Court of Appeal disagreed and found that Perkins was a MARTCO employee for the purposes of the lawsuit, and affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment for the Sheriff and the DOC.
After affirming the trial court’s ruling for the defendants, the Third Circuit had to determine whether the lawsuit was so frivolous as to warrant sanctions against Perkins’ trial attorney. Perkins argued that his lawyer should not have been sanctioned for bringing a frivolous suit under La. C.C.P. art. 863. To determine whether sanctions were proper, The Court looked to its previous decision in Bentley v. Fanguy, where it discussed the exceptional circumstances required to impose sanctions on attorneys. Bentley v. Fanguy, 48 So.3d 381 (La. 2008). Bentley states that sanctions under Article 863 are precluded so long as the party has the slightest justification for exercising its legal right.
Applying this precedent to the case at hand, the Court found that Perkins’ attorney demonstrated belief in the merits of her case by zealously advocating for Perkins, and that no exceptional circumstances existed. It reversed the part of the trial court’s decision ordering counsel to pay sanctions for bringing a frivolous lawsuit.
Lawyers should never be sanctioned for genuinely and ethically advocating for their clients. Similarly, clients should not have their appeals dismissed simply because they have not paid costs, especially when they have demonstrated an inability to pay. Plaintiffs and lawyers alike, however, should be wary of filing lawsuits against correctional facilities for injuries sustained while on work release. For these plaintiffs, the only legal remedy is to collect from the inmate’s employer.
Additional Sources: EDWARD PERKINS V. ROY O’MARTIN LUMBER CO., LLC, ET AL.
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Leanna Gavin
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