Louisiana Appeals Court Holds Employer/Employee Contract Does Not Change Relationship Created By Law

Scaffolding_Treefield_Rd_2012_01_26_0002In a recent workers’ compensation case before the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, the court reviewed whether the employer/employee relationship extends past the principal and contractor level. The policy implications of extending the statutory employer doctrine are complex, especially since employers are protected from tort immunity by the workers’ compensation statutes.

This case involved an industrial accident, which injured Mr. Tony Berard. He and his wife brought a personal injury lawsuit against the defendants to recover damages for their injuries.  One defendant, Shilling Acquisitions, Inc., appealed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment and dismissal of another defendant, The Lemoine Company, LLC.

Mr. Berard fell through a skylight while he was working on a building, sustaining severe personal injuries. Schilling Acquisitions, Inc. owned the building, and Mr. Berard sued Schilling Acquisitions, Inc., as well as The Lemoine Company.  He had contracted for repair and renovation of the building with The Lemoine Company.  Mr. Berard amended his petititon to add Mrs. Berard as a plaintiff.

The Lemoine Company filed a motion for summary judgment, on the grounds that it employed Mr. Berard, and its sole responsibility to him is under the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act. The trial court granted this summary judgment motion, dismissing the company as a party defendant. Both the Berards and Schilling Acquisitions, Inc. appealed.

The details of this case demonstrate that Schilling Acquisitions owned the building in which Mr. Berard was injured. Schilling Acquisitions contracted with The Lemoine Company to have them repair the roof of the building. Then, the Lemoine Company subcontracted with another company, Vaughan Roofing, to have them perform a section of the repair work. Vaughan Roofing entered into another subcontract, and Mr. Berard fell through the skylight while working with the roofing crew of this subcontractor company.

The Lemoine Company claimed the statutory employer status under the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act.  The language of the statute makes clear that unless an intentional act is committed, the remedies provided to a worker are exclusive of other rights and remedies against his employer, or any principal of the employer. The exclusivity of this remedy applies to all other claims, including those that might arise against his employer or any principal.

The appeals court stated that the statutory employer doctrine was created to protect the employee. In the case at hand, the Lemoine Company seeks the status of statutory employer to protect itself from tort liability.

Applying the law to the facts, the court stated that the Lemoine Company is the principal, and Vaughn is the contractor. Vaughn is also the principal in the contract with the subcontractor. Vaughn is the statutory employer of the subcontractor’s employees, including Mr. Berard.

The issue is whether the statutory employer status extends to the subcontractor’s employees. While the Lemoine Company argues that the relationship extends to the subcontractor’s employees, the plaintiffs and Schilling Acquisitions argue that the contract does not extend to three or more parties.

The court looked to the contract between Vaughn and the subcontractor. The subcontractor is recognized as an independent contractor. But this status does not preclude Mr. Berard from being considered an employee of The Lemoine Company. The court stated that the contract does not change the statutory employer/employee relationship created by law.

The court also relied on precedent to expand the statutory employer status past the principal/contractor level. The court acknowledged that an unintended consequence of applying the statutory employer doctrine holds the Lemoine Company immune from tort liability. Despite conflicting with the spirit and purpose of the doctrine, the court stated that the conclusion is based on the facts at hand. Mr. Berard is the statutory employee of Lemoine.

The court in this case interpreted Louisiana workers’ compensation laws liberally, such that the employee is entitled to benefits, but the employer is protected from tort liability. At Lavis Law, we help individuals navigate their workers’ compensation claims. Contact us for a free consultation at 866-558-9151.

More Blog Posts:

Louisiana Appeals Court Upholds Judgment in Favor of Injured Employee Based on Her Credibility and Medical Testimony, Louisiana Job Injury Law Blog, July 31, 2015

Appeals Court Finds No Manifest Error in Louisiana Office of Workers’ Compensation Judgment Concerning Missed Benefit Payments and Medical Findings, Louisiana Job Injury Law Blog, July 17, 2015

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