Texas Lawmakers, Workers Criticize Court’s Liability Ruling

December 12, 2007

Four state lawmakers and the Texas AFL-CIO have asked the Texas Supreme Court to reverse its decision in a case they say incorrectly expands liability protections for employers under state workers’ compensation laws.

The court’s Aug. 31 ruling in the case of Entergy vs. Summers contradicts state law, the legislators argued in a brief filed with the court.

The brief was drafted by state Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, and signed by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

“This Court, by disregarding the express terms of the Legislature’s enactments, has violated the separation of powers clause of the Texas Constitution and impermissibly encroached on the powers and functions expressly reserved to the Legislature,” the lawmakers argued.

In Galveston, representatives of the AFL-CIO said if the court’s decision were in place at the time, it would have prevented injured workers from suing BP over the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 people.

“Whether you work in heavy industry, go out on service calls or engage in professional consulting on other companies’ property, the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Entergy vs. Summers has made your life a little more dangerous,” said Lee Medley, president of the union’s Galveston County Central Labor Committee.

In the disputed case, the Supreme Court ruled against John Summers, a contract worker injured in a 2001 accident at an Entergy Gulf States plant in Bridge City. The court said that Entergy was immune from a lawsuit seeking damages because Summers was covered by a workers’ comp policy purchased by Entergy.

The lawmakers said in their brief that the Workers’ Compensation Act provides protection from liability to employers who have purchased workers compensation insurance for their direct employees.

“This Court’s holding in this case improperly extends that immunity to non-employer premises (plant) owners,” they said. “The Legislature has never authorized such an extension, never intended to provide such an extension, and, in fact, has repeatedly rejected such an extension.”

The court based its ruling on a 1993 change in language in the state labor law, but the Legislature said at the time that the change was not intended to change the substance of the law, the lawmakers said.

Information from: Houston Chronicle, www.chron.com; The Galveston County Daily News, www.galvnews.com

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