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Whitehead v. International Paper Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Alexandria Division

November 26, 2018

BRETT STUART WHITEHEAD, individually and on behalf of Michael Tristan Whitehead, a minor, ROBIN CHASE WHITEHEAD and STEPHANIE W. RUSHING
v.
INTERNATIONAL PAPER CO.

          PEREZ-MONTES MAG. JUDGE

          MEMORANDUM RULING

          DEED D. DRELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Now before the court is a motion for summary judgment filed by defendant, International Paper Co. ("IP"), in the above-captioned case. (Doc. 53). For the reasons explained below, the court finds that IP's motion should be GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of an unfortunate incident occurring on or about January 30, 2015 at IP's Red River Mill facility in Campti, Louisiana. On the date at issue in this case, IP's contractor, Turner Industries, Inc. ("Turner" or "Contractor") conducted repairs to a water supply line and fire header pursuant to Purchase Order 8865119 ("purchase order"). (Doc. 53-3). Phillip Stuart Whitehead ("Whitehead"), a Turner employee, sustained fatal injuries when the catwalk floor upon which he was walking collapsed, causing him to fall approximately eleven (11) feet to a concrete floor below. (Doc. 1-3 at ¶¶ 5-6).

         Plaintiffs are the surviving children of Whitehead and bring wrongful death and survival actions against IP. (Id. at ¶ 15). IP asserts, inter alia, its status as Whitehead's statutory employer and argues, thereby, that Plaintiffs' exclusive remedy in this matter lies within the Louisiana Workers' Compensation Act ("LWCA"). (Doc. 9).

         IP and co-defendant, Hunter Whitely ("Whitely") filed a prior motion for summary judgment, urging dismissal of Whitely on the basis of improper joinder. (Doc. 11). The court adopted the report and recommendation of the magistrate judge, thereby granting defendants' motion and dismissing Whitely from the case on the basis that he had only general administrative responsibilities at IP's Red River Mill, but not the sort of oversight giving rise to personal liability in this matter. (Docs. 28, 29).

         IP's instant motion focuses on its statutory employer defense, seeking dismissal of all claims against it in this suit under the LWCA's exclusive remedy, barring tort recovery. The motion is fully briefed and the court carefully considered the law and argument advanced by the parties.

         II. APPLICABLE STANDARD

         A court "shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute of material fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). We consider all "evidence in the light most favorable to the party resisting the motion." Trevino v. Celanese Corp., 701 F.2d 397, 407 (5th Cir. 1983). It is important to note that the standard for a summary judgment is two-fold: (1) there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and (2) the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         III. ANALYSIS

         We begin with the threshold issue of whether determination of statutory employer status is a question of law to be decided by the court or one of fact reserved for the jury. While plaintiffs assert Brewton v. Underwriters Insurance Co., 848 So.2d 586 (La. 2003) instructs statutory employer status is a fact question reserved to the jury, the court finds this argument to be without merit. As pointed out in IP's reply memorandum, the Brewton holding is not that statutory employer status may not be decided by the court, but rather that the 1990 amendment to the Louisiana Constitution (Art. V, Section 16), whereby original jurisdiction over workers' compensation cases was removed from district courts and vested in the Office of Workers' Compensation, did not act to deprive a plaintiff in a tort suit from the right of jury trial in cases where the issue of statutory employer status is raised as a defense to tort liability. Importantly, the court noted that the question of statutory employer status in Brewton could have been resolved via summary judgment, had such motion been filed in that case. (Id. at 589 n. 2). Indeed, jurisprudence indicates pretrial motions based upon this issue are routinely filed and considered, further affirming that Brewton does not stand for the proposition that such issue is one of fact, inappropriate for summary judgment. See, e.g., Wright v. Excel Paralubes, 807 F.3d 730 (5th Cir. 2015) (affirming district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant based on statutory employer presumption based on contractual language under La. R.S. 23:1061 (A)); Ramos v. Tulane University of Louisiana, 951 So.2d 1267 (La.App. 4 Cir. 2007) (affirming a grant of summary judgment to defendant by the trial court based on contractual language under La. R.S. 23:1061(A)).

         The LWCA designates workers' compensation as the exclusive remedy for an employee injured while in the course of performing work undertaken by his employer, "principals" or "partners" of a principal. La. R.S. 23:1032(A)(1)(a) - (b); 1061(A)(1), (2). A "principal" is defined as "any person who undertakes to execute any work which is part of his trade, business, or occupation in which he was engaged at the time of the injury. Id. When a principal hires a contractor to complete some or all of the work undertaken by the principal, the principal is the "statutory employer" and privy to the same exclusive remedy protections against claims by the contractor's employees as against its own employees. Id. Within the LWCA, one of two methods by which a principal is recognized as a statutory employer is by written contract that expressly designates the principal as the statutory employer to the contractor's employees. La. R.S. 23:1061 (A)(3). In the context of a lawsuit, such a contract creates the rebuttable presumption that the principal was the statutory employer at the time of the work and injury. In order to overcome the statutory employer presumption, an employee must show that the work performed "is not an integral part of or essential to the ability of the principal to generate that principal's good, products, or services." Id.

         In response to jurisprudence it found to undesirably limit the terms "integral" or "essential," the Louisiana legislature amended R.S. 23:1061(A)(3) in 1997 to provide its current language. Everett v. Rubicon, 938 So.2d 1032, 1035-37 (La. 1 Cir. 2006) citing, inter alia, Kirkland v. Riverwood International USA, Inc., 681 So.2d 329 (La. 1996) and Berry v. Holston Well Service,Inc., 488 So.2d 934 (La. 1986). In its current form, § 1061(A)(3) is interpreted liberally by courts across Louisiana and their federal counterparts. Wrigh ...


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