Justice and Worker Safety
Labor leaders and legislators draw attention to court decision they say threatens workers' ability to sue when injured by negligent employers
The plaintiff, John Summers, argued that when he was injured while performing construction and maintenance work at Sabine Station plant of Entergy Gulf States Inc., his direct employer was International Maintenance Corp., the company hired to perform the job. Entergy argued that since it was the company that hired IMC, it was the general contractor employing Summers and that he was covered by their policy, and thus they could not be sued. In the Aug. 31 opinion, Justice Don Willett wrote that the court had looked at the plain language of the law and "the governing Labor Code definitions of general contractor and subcontractor do not forbid a premises owner from also being a general contractor."
On Dec. 10, Becky Moeller, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, called the portion of the law on which the court relied, "an obscure, 15-year-old nonsubstantive recodification of the Labor Code," and said, "The Texas Supreme Court has gouged a giant hole in the legal protections for Texas workers by giving large-business owners a technical loophole to escape the consequences of their own wrongdoing."
Until the Texas Supreme Court waltzed into this issue, the Texas Legislature, even at the height of the tort-reform craze, had declined to go this far in closing the courthouse doors to injured workers, despite repeated efforts by the anti-lawsuit lobby. Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin echoed that, saying, "The Court reached a result that the Legislature has rejected over and over again. The Legislature has avoided reducing and has, instead, worked to assure worker protections and also make sure employers keep a commitment to safety."
"Non-substantive re-codifications of statutes are a constitutionally mandated duty of the Legislature ... specifically meant to NOT change the intent of law," said Brownsville Sen. Eddie Lucio in a statement. "In the Entergy decision, the Texas Supreme Court has violated the separation of powers in this state using judicial activism to write law."
Moeller said the AFL-CIO will call for a rehearing and reversal of the decision and will participate in any legislative hearings called to discuss the case.