Texas Supreme Court should reverse decision that hurts workersThe Texas Supreme Court should reverse its ruling that would limit the right of contract workers to sue for damages when injured on the job.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
The Texas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Oct. 16 on its much criticized Entergy ruling. The court should follow up on the hearing by reversing a ruling that was deeply unfair to injured workers and was called unjustified even by an association of lawyers who represent business owners and insurers.
The Entergy case involved one of those legal issues that can set listeners to yawning when explained — but when put into practice in the real world, inflicts terrible hardships on the personal lives of people who have been horribly injured while at work.
The legal issue is whether a plant owner who hires a contractor to perform work — maintenance, for example — can escape liability in a lawsuit if one of the contractor's workers is injured on the job.
For years, the answer in Texas has been simple: No. The injured worker could sue the plant owner, submitting a negligence claim to judge and jury. That was true even if the contractor carried workers' compensation insurance — the contractor could not be sued, but the plant owner could.
However, a general contractor could purchase workers' compensation insurance and apply it to any subcontractor's employees it in turn hired to do work at the plant. That way, general contractors were encouraged to carry workers' compensation insurance, which ensured that injured workers would have their medical bills covered and get some of their lost pay covered.
There were proposals to extend immunity to the plant owner over the years, but the Legislature rejected them. The argument against giving plant owners immunity from lawsuits by injured workers was that it would eliminate a powerful incentive for maintaining high safety standards.
Then, Entergy Gulf States Inc., an electric utility, decided to punch out a new loophole. When a contract worker, John Summers, was seriously injured in 2001 at one of its facilities, Entergy claimed status as general contractor and, therefore, immunity to suit. After all, Entergy said, the worker already had workers' compensation insurance from the "subcontractor" that Entergy had paid for.
A district judge agreed with Entergy, but a state appeals court sided with the injured worker, who wanted to sue Entergy for damages.
When the Texas Supreme Court ruled 9-0 for Entergy, it threw labor activists and the legal community that focuses on injured workers into an uproar. Several key legislators of both parties have told the court — whose nine Republicans had promised not to legislate from the bench — that it had clearly ignored legislative intent.
In fact, the Entergy decision was so far removed from settled law that even the Texas Association of Defense Counsel has called on the court to reverse it. The association's members generally represent those being sued — like plant owners.
The court has a chance here to correct itself and should take it. Injured contract workers should be able to take their allegations of negligence to a jury.