A worker is fighting one of Mississippi’s largest industries in a skirmish over who can be sued when employees suffer on-the-job injuries.
The Mississippi Supreme Court Tuesday heard arguments in a suit by Quindon Thomas against Chevron USA. Thomas was working for American Plant Services, which provided contract workers at Chevron’s Pascagoula refinery, when he was severely burned in 2012. A Chevron employee opened a valve, releasing hot water, steam and coke onto Thomas.
Typically, the bargain struck under workers compensation is that employers will pay when workers are injured and the employees, in turn, can’t sue over their injuries. But this case could allow contract employees to collect workers compensation, plus sue the ultimate business owner. Many manufacturers now depend on contract workers in day-to-day operations.
Business groups, which have sought to cut down on lawsuits, and trial lawyers, who have largely lost those fights, are closely watching the case. It was argued before a court where large sums have been spent by both sides to elect justices in recent years. The Mississippi Economic Council – the state’s chamber of commerce – filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Chevron’s behalf, while the Mississippi Association of Justice, a trial lawyer’s group, intervened on behalf of Thomas.
Thomas sued Chevron, and the California-based oil giant responded that it should be immune from being sued because it had bought the workers’ compensation insurance that covered APS workers and paid more than $1 million in care and benefits to Thomas after he was injured.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Robert Krebs agreed with Chevron’s argument and dismissed the case.
But lawyer James Reeves said Thomas should be able to sue Chevron for having dangerous conditions. He argued that it’s well-settled state law that a general contractor on construction projects gets immunity. But he said no property owner gets immunity, even one who hires contract workers to operate part of a facility on an ongoing basis.
“They are attempting clearly to restrict the rights of Mr. Thomas,” Reeves told the court.
Chevron, though, argues that the court should construe the law as broadly as possible. Lawyer Patrick Buchanan said that because Chevron had a contract with the owner of American Plant Services, it should be considered a general contractor under the law, and qualify for immunity.
“We’re not asking the court to change the law or overrule precedent that’s already out there,” Buchanan said. “What we are asking the court to do is broadly interpret the law.”
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