TRIGGER ALERT – SLEEP-INDUCING LEGAL TOPIC AHEAD
The whole issue of “conflict of laws” is about as dry as toast, at least until someone’s injury will go uncompensated because the wrongdoer is immune from liability.
In today’s case, Mr. Cain — a Mississippian — worked for a Mississippi tree-trimming company. The company signed on with a Louisiana public utility to trim trees along a right-of-way in Louisiana. Mr. Cain was hurt when his bucket truck came into contact with an electric line, and he collected on workers’ comp from the Mississippi company. But he sued the electric utility for his injuries, too.
We have no basis for saying that the utility was or was not negligent, and thereby whether it was or was not liable for his injuries. What we do know is that the utility company and Cain’s employer had entered into an agreement that made Cain a “statutory employee” of the utility while he was working on the job, although he really remained an employee of the tree-trimming service.
Whether someone is a “statutory employee” – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder. Generally, a “statutory employee” So someone who is a statutory employee for IRS purposes may or may not be a statutory employee under state law. Under Louisiana law, the utility was immune from Cain’s suit, because as a statutory employee, his remedies were limited to what he could collect from workers’ comp. But under Mississippi law, companies couldn’t use the “statutory employee” dodge to avoid liability. The trial court said that Louisiana law applied because the accident happened there. Pretty logical, huh? The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans didn’t think so.
The Court said that while normally that would be the case, Louisiana state law provided an exception, that it would not apply where there was a conflict with another state’s law, and the other state’s policies would be seriously harmed by applying Louisiana law. Mississippi had a strong policy in favor of protecting the subcontractor’s worker — and that policy carried the day. The lesson here for companies working across state lines — or hiring out-of-state companies to work in their home states — is to check carefully beforehand to be sure that protective measures like “statutory employees” really will work. What goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas … but what goes on at home sometimes doesn’t really travel well.
Cain v. Altec Industries, Inc., 236 Fed.Appx. 965 (5th Cir., 2007). Francis Cain, a Mississippi resident, worked for Carson Line Service, Inc., a Mississippi corporation. Carson signed a contract with Washington – St. Tammany Electrical Co-operative (“WST”), a Louisiana corporation, under which Carson agreed to clear rights-of-way for WST’s power lines.
Working on this project, Cain was trimming trees along a power line in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, when his aerial truck boom came into contact with an energized WST power line. Cain was badly hurt.
Cain got workers’ compensation benefits under Mississippi’s workers’ compensation law through Carson’s insurance carrier, but that wasn’t enough. He and his wife decided to raise cain with WST, too, so they sued.
WST filed a third-party claim against Carson for defense and indemnity. WST filed a motion for summary judgment claiming tort immunity based on the “statutory employer doctrine” in Louisiana’s workers’ compensation law. That law lets contractors agree that a subcontractor’s employees are “statutory employees,” which makes the contractor immune from liability to them. Cain argued that their case was an “exceptional case,” pursuant to La. Civil Code Article 3547. Mississippi law — under which no “statutory employee” exception existed for the companies to hide behind – should govern the claim, he argued. The trial court granted WST’s motion, concluding that Louisiana law applied.
The Cains appealed.
Held: Mississippi law, not Louisiana law, governed. The Court of Appeals first determined that the laws of Louisiana and Mississippi conflicted. It then found that under Louisiana law, a written contract between a principal and contractor recognizing the principal as the statutory employer of the contractor’s employees was valid and enforceable, making WST immune from civil tort liability. Mississippi law, on the other hand, didn’t recognize and wouldn’t enforce contracts giving tort immunity to a principal sued by a contractor’s employees unless the principal has the legal obligation under the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Act to secure compensation for that contractor’s employees.
WST had no obligation under the Act. Thus, there was a substantive difference between Louisiana and Mississippi law, requiring a choice-of-laws determination. The Court said that the issue of whether WST was immune from tort liability was an issue of loss distribution and financial protection governed by La. Civ. Code article 3544. Under its mechanical rule, Louisiana law would apply because, at the time of the injury, Cain, who lived in Mississippi, and WST, a Louisiana corporation, were domiciled in different states, and both the injury and the conduct that caused it occurred in one of those states, that is, Louisiana. Thus, the Court said, WST would be entitled to the statutory employer tort immunity afforded it under Louisiana law.
However (and this was the big “however”), article 3547 also holds that where “from the totality of the circumstances of an exceptional case, it is clearly evident under the principles of Article 3542, that the policies of another state would be more seriously impaired if its law were not applied to the particular issue …” the law of the other state will apply. The Court ruled, after comparing the policies and interests of both Louisiana and Mississippi, it was clear the policies of Mississippi would be more seriously impaired if Louisiana law were applied to this dispute than would Louisiana’s if Mississippi law were applied.
Consequently, the Court said, it would apply Mississippi law to this dispute. Thus, WST was not immune from suit.