ALEJANDRO JORGE-CHAVELAS; ALFREDO MORENO-ABARCA, Plaintiffs - Appellees
LOUISIANA FARM BUREAU CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY; LOUISIANA FARM BUREAU MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendants - Appellants
AMERICAN INTERSTATE INSURANCE COMPANY, Intervenor Plaintiff - Appellee
from the United States District Court for the Middle District
KING, HIGGINSON, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.
COSTA, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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. 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.
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
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.
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
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,
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