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Supreme Court Rules to Allow Plant Operators to Escape Liability for Negligence

Although these are not cases of work injuries in North Carolina, these laws serve as an example of what laws employees face around the country when they are hurt at work:

When George Bush was governor of Texas, he amended legislation that took away major benefits from injured workers in Texas. Now the 100% Republican Texas Supreme Court (mostly Bush appointees) took further rights away from injured Texas workers. A Supreme Court opinion now allows manufacturers to escape the consequences of their negligent conduct when non-employees are injured in their plants.

Employees in North Carolina and all other states are not allowed to sue their employers in court for their negligence. Employees are limited to bringing claims for on-the-job injuries against their employers under the workers' compensation law of their state. The workers' compensation benefits are severely limited. Injured workers in North Carolina can, however bring negligence actions against third parties (that is, against entities who are not their employers). Not so in Texas.

Because of this new opinion from the Texas Supreme Court, negligent plant operators can escape their liability to non-employees who are injured in their plant by purchasing some type of hybrid "workers' compensation" insurance. This "insurance" pays the injured worker only pennies on the dollar compared with what they would recover in a traditional court claim. This new scheme is nothing more that a new method for industrial plants to protect themselves from liability claims of workers injured on the job.

The decision, handed down on August 31 of this year, was unanimous and expands the ability of plant owners to protect themselves from being liable for workplace accidents under the laws for workers' compensation. According to the court, the protection from liability covering employers who are general contractors has been spread to plant owners for the first time. Plant owners will have to consider the costs of purchasing workers' comp on contract workers versus the risk of liability suits that could be costly to the plant.

The president of the Texas Chemical Council, Hector Rivero, noted that they were still trying to understand the court’s decision; however he is glad that administering workers' comp now has a “uniform standard.” The AFL-CIO was, not surprisingly, unhappy with the decision, believing that the fact that the judges were all Republicans, whom major businesses are a major source of campaign donations for, had a great deal of influence on the decision.

The decision itself, handed down by Justice Don Willett, was against a contract worker named John Summers, who was injured in an accident at an Entergy Gulf States plant in Bridge City in 2001. The court ruled that he couldn’t collect damages for the alleged negligence because Entergy purchased a workmers' comp policy for him. They also held that a premises owner like Entergy could be classified as a general contractor, based on a 1993 re-codification of workers' comp law.