Texas Lawmakers, Labor Groups Urge Rehearing of Workers Comp Case

A decision passed by the Texas Supreme Court on a high profile case has labor groups and state Congressional leaders seething as they claim the ruling, which limits injured contract employees to workers’ compensation benefits without the ability to pursue legal action, allows negligent companies to escape consequences.

According to media reports, four Texas lawmakers – state Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola – along with the Texas AFL-CIO, drafted a brief arguing the decision in the Entergy Gulf v. Summers case this past August “incorrectly expands liability protections for employers under state workers' compensation laws.”

In 2001, John Summers was injured in an accident while working at Entergy's Sabine Station plant as an employee of a contractor hired by Entergy. Along with his worker's compensation claim, he tried to sue the company for negligence. The Texas Supreme Court overturned an appellate ruling in his favor, establishing that Entergy – the "premises owner" – also qualified as a "general contractor." Because Summers was covered by workers compensation purchased by Entergy, the company was immune from injury lawsuits, the ruling said.

State lawmakers assert that the Supreme Court’s decision overrides state law. Section 406 of the Texas Labor Code states that a "general contractor" may enter a written contract to provide worker's compensation coverage for a subcontractor's employees, which makes the general contractor the employer of the subcontractor's employees for purposes of the workers' compensation laws. The code defines a general contractor as "a person who undertakes to procure the performance of work or a service, either separately or through the use of subcontractors."

USW: Ruling “Rewards Negligent Employers”

The United Steelworkers union (USW) is also urging a rehearing of the case.

“This decision rewards negligent employers who fail to maintain a safe workplace,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers. “Without the ability to sue companies where they work when they get injured, the contractors end up shouldering the cost of their injuries and the employers avoid liability except for the cost of workers’ compensation coverage.

Beevers also stated that had the Entergy v. Summers case been ongoing when the BP explosion occurred at Texas Cit in March 2005, “BP would have escaped with at least $1.5 billion in liability.”

“It was only through the legal process that we were able to get access to documents that revealed the company’s disregard for safety,” he said.

And without the threat of litigation, labor leaders are wondering if companies will be as diligent to maintain safe workplaces.

“This threat is the only way we can force companies to make dangerous workplaces safer,” said USW International Vice President Tom Conway. “Without this threat, worker injuries and deaths become just a cost of doing business.”

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