Court should reverse self for workers' sakes
By The Editorial Board | Thursday, May 1, 2008
The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to reconsider its ruling that gave companies new protection from liability for injuries to workers on their property who are not their employees. The court should reverse its earlier ruling because it has misapplied state law and given plant owners less incentive to maintain safe workplaces.
The case came from Southeast Texas. Entergy Gulf States Inc., an electric utility, hired International Maintenance Corp. to do major construction and maintenance work at its Sabine Station Plant at Bridge City.
One of IMC's workers, John Summers, was seriously injured in April 2001 while working at the plant. He collected workers' compensation benefits but also sued Entergy, accusing it of providing defective equipment .
But Entergy said that, acting as its own general contractor, it had purchased the workers' compensation insurance that covered IMC's workers and thus was immune to Summers' lawsuit. State law allows general contractors to purchase such coverage for its subcontractors. The question was whether the company hiring an outside contractor for work on the company's own facilities can simply call itself a general contractor, buy workers' compensation coverage and thereby obtain legal immunity to suits by injured workers.
Summers argued that state law doesn't allow a plant owner like Entergy to escape liability that way when it uses contract workers. A district judge agreed with Entergy, but a state appeals court sided with Summers.
Last August, in a ruling written by Justice Don Willett, the all-Republican Supreme Court, which has built a solid record of siding with business in its rulings, unanimously ruled for Entergy.
Had this decision been in effect in 2005, when an explosion at a BP refinery at Texas City killed 15 contract workers and injured more than 170 others, those workers and their families might not have been able to hold BP liable, although a federal investigation blamed company cost-cutting for making the plant dangerous. So far, BP has paid or committed to pay more than $2 billion to settle numerous civil claims. (BP, by the way, reported record profits last week of $7.6 billion - just for the first quarter of this year.)
The Texas Legislature - hardly a tool of labor or trial lawyer interests - has considered several times whether to grant "premises owners" like Entergy the ability to purchase workers' compensation insurance and, thus, immunity from lawsuits for contract workers, and it has repeatedly refused to do so.
That's why among those calling on the Supreme Court to reconsider its Entergy ruling is a group of state lawmakers who accused the court of "disregarding the express terms of the Legislature's enactments" and violating the separations of powers required by the Texas Constitution.
That legislative group includes Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican whose district reaches into southern Travis County, and Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola. Also signing the friend-of-the-court brief were Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston and Rep. Craig Eiland of Galveston, both Democrats.
Buried under the legal argument over the Entergy case is John Summers, 48, who - seven years after the accident - is still in constant pain, suffers from spinal problems and cannot use his right arm or hand. A federal administrative law judge has ruled Summers is disabled and qualified for Social Security disability benefits.
Seven years after his accident, Summers is still awaiting his day in court. The Texas Supreme Court should give it to him.