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A Louisiana sugar cane farm employer does not enjoy immunity from a lawsuit over severe injuries suffered by two employees of its independent contractor while on the employer’s worksite, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans affirmed Thursday.
Alejandro Jorge-Chavelas and Alfredo Moreno-Abarca, Mexican citizens in the United States on work visas, were severely injured while working on the farm operated by Harang Sugars LLC of Donaldsonville, Louisiana, according to the decision in Alejandro Jorge-Chavelas, Alfredo Moreno-Abarca v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Co. v. American Interstate Insurance Co. Their legs were crushed when a Harang employee drove into the sugar cane cart they were sitting on.
There were no disputes that a Harang employee was at fault or over the damages the plaintiffs suffered, but Harang’s insurers contended the men were Harang’s employees, whose injuries were excluded from its general liability policy. Alternatively, the Farm Bureau argued that Louisiana workers compensation laws grant its insured immunity from this suit — both positions that turn on the nature of the plaintiffs’ employment.
The direct employer of the two employees was Lowry Farms Inc., which plants sugar cane for other farmers, according to the ruling. Because the sugar cane 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. Lowry recruited the two men and 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.
Harang was one of Lowry’s clients, and the agreement between the two companies treated the planters as Lowry’s employees, according to the ruling. Lowry oversaw planters in the fields, communicated with the farmers, reported injuries suffered by the planters, decided which planters would work on which farms and paid the planters, among other things. Harang provided the necessary equipment 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’s management did not believe the planters were its employees, according to the ruling. 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.” Lowry’s workers compensation insurer covered plaintiffs’ medical expenses.
The two employees sued Harang in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with the court denying motions for summary judgment and conducting a bench trial. The parties agreed that Harang was at fault and that total damages would be $2.5 million, which was 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 the suit, with the court concluding that the plaintiffs were not Harang’s employees and that the workers compensation laws did not otherwise provide Harang immunity.
“Plaintiffs were neither employees of Harang nor its independent contractors,” the appeals court said in affirming the decision. “Instead, they were employees of Harang’s independent contractor. That means Harang enjoys no immunity from suit.”
Spokespersons for the insurers could not be immediately reached for comment.
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