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Jorge-Chavelas v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

March 8, 2019


          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana

          Before KING, HIGGINSON, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.


         Workers' compensation laws strike a statutory bargain between labor and management. They all but guarantee that a worker will recover from an employer for workplace injuries. In exchange for that certainty, the worker gives up the right to pursue a potentially larger recovery in a tort suit- employers are immune from such claims.

         These tradeoffs mean that questions about whether the statutory scheme covers an injured worker can cause businesses and workers alike to oscillate between seemingly opposed positions. A worker uncertain about the chances of a tort suit will often seek workers' compensation, prompting the business to argue that the worker does not fall within the statutory protections. If the worker has a strong tort claim, the roles may flip-the business then has an incentive to argue that workers' compensation is the worker's exclusive remedy.

         This case is of the latter variety. The insurer of a Louisiana sugarcane farm has raised several arguments that the farm is entitled to statutory immunity from this lawsuit brought by two injured cane planters. Those workers-entitled to a $2.5 million recovery if workers' compensation does not apply-hope to show otherwise.


         Alejandro Jorge-Chavelas and Alfredo Moreno-Abarca, Mexican citizens in the United States on work visas, were severely injured while working on a Louisiana sugarcane farm operated by Harang Sugars, L.L.C. Their legs were crushed when a Harang employee drove into the sugarcane cart they were sitting on.

         No one disputes that Harang's employee was at fault. Nor does anyone dispute the damages the plaintiffs suffered. Instead, Harang's insurers (collectively "Farm Bureau") contend that Jorge-Chavelas and Moreno-Abarca were Harang's employees, whose injuries are excluded from its general liability policy. Alternatively, Farm Bureau argues that Louisiana workers' compensation laws grant its insured immunity from this suit. Both positions turn on the nature of the plaintiffs' employment. And so we turn to the arrangement between the four main players: Jorge-Chavelas, Moreno-Abarca, their direct employer (Lowry Farms, Inc.), and Harang.

Lowry plants sugarcane for other farmers. Because the sugarcane planting season is short but labor intensive, farmers prefer to contract out the work rather than hire the necessary short-term workers. Once a farm contracts with it, Lowry sends recruiters to Mexico to find cane planters. Jorge-Chavelas and Moreno-Abarca were two such recruits. Lowry obtained the necessary visas and agreed to pay the workers an hourly rate and provide them housing, transportation to and from the worksite, and workers' compensation insurance. It also explained that the workers would "be required to work all hours as directed by [Lowry's] management personnel."

         Harang was one of Lowry's clients. Their contract required Harang to pay Lowry on a per-acre-planted basis, as opposed to per hour worked by a planter.[1] The agreement treated the planters as Lowry's employees, stating that the payments were "for the work performed by Lowry Farms, Inc. workers." While Harang requested 21 workers for the season, it had no role in the selection of those individuals.

         Once planting season began, Lowry recruiters became "crew leaders." They oversaw planters in the fields, settled disputes between the planters, communicated with the farmers, reported injuries suffered by the planters to Lowry, and arranged the planters' transportation back to Mexico. They also decided which planters would work on which farms. Crew leaders selected "straw bosses" to be their on-the-ground supervisors during the planting, and these Lowry employees trained the planters. At the end of each week, Harang filled out a time sheet for the planters, but it was the crew leaders' responsibility to report the planters' hours to Lowry. Every week, Lowry paid the planters.

         On the farms, the planters worked side-by-side with Harang's employees. Harang tractor drivers hauled the sugarcane carts while the Lowry planters followed behind in groups of three, pulling the cane from the carts and planting it in the ground. Harang provided the necessary equipment-the tractors, carts, and sugarcane all belonged to Harang. But it typically did not exert direct control over the planters. If its owner had a problem with the planters' work, he would contact Lowry's office manager, who would contact the crew leader, who would in turn communicate the concern to the planters. And only Lowry could fire its planters-Harang could voice concern about a planter in the hope that Lowry would find a substitute, but it could not terminate his employment.

         Harang's management did not believe the planters were its employees. On the day of the accident, after calling emergency services, Harang's owner immediately notified Lowry. When asked why, he replied, "Because that's their employees." Indeed, Lowry's workers' compensation insurer covered plaintiffs' medical expenses.[2]

         Jorge-Chavelas and Moreno-Abarca sued Harang in federal district court, invoking diversity jurisdiction. After the court denied competing motions for summary judgment, a stipulated bench trial followed. The parties agreed that Harang was at fault and that total damages would be $2.5 million (the limit of the Farm Bureau policy). The court had to decide the employment status of the plaintiffs and, relatedly, whether Harang was immune from suit. Concluding that the plaintiffs were not Harang's employees and that the workers' compensation laws did not otherwise provide Harang immunity, the district court entered judgment in favor of Jorge-Chavelas for $1, 937, 500 and Moreno-Abarca for $562, 500.


         Louisiana law applies in this diversity case. Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938). Our task is to "determine as best [we] can [how] the Louisiana Supreme Court would decide" it. Gulf & Miss. River Transp. Co. v. BP Oil Pipeline Co., 730 F.3d 484, 488 (5th Cir. 2013) (quotation omitted). When the absence of a controlling high court decision requires us to make an "Erie guess" about Louisiana law, we consider many of the same sources we use when guessing the law of other jurisdictions: decisions and reasoning of the state's courts; general rules of the jurisdiction, such as those governing statutory interpretation; and secondary sources like treatises. Id. at 488-89. But Louisiana's "civilian methodology" means the pecking order of those sources is different than it is for a common law state. Boyett v. Redland Ins. Co., 741 F.3d 604, 607 (5th Cir. 2014). Louisiana's "Constitution, codes, and statutes" are of paramount importance to its judges. Am. Int'l Specialty Lines Ins. Co. v. Canal Indem. Co., 352 F.3d 254, 260 (5th Cir. 2003). The doctrine of stare decisis, a creature of common law, is alien to the civilian system. Boyett, 741 F.3d at 607. Unlike stare decisis, which can flow from one decision, in the civil system numerous court decisions must agree on a legal issue to establish jurisprudence constante (French for constant jurisprudence). And even when that consensus exists in the caselaw, it remains only persuasive authority for the Erie guess; "we are not strictly bound" by ...

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