Bujol v. Entergy and The Good Samaritan Doctrine: Workers Compensation and Safety Regulations, Who Needs Them?
|Matthew P. Bonham
Thank you to professor Frank L. Maraist for bringing this case to the author's attention, and to Professor Glenn G. Morris, Shawn Carter, Whitney Elzen, and Alexandra White for their valuable comments and suggestions provided during the production of this casenote.
Great cases like hard cases make bad law. For great cases are called great, not by reason of their real importance in shaping the law of the future, but because of some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment. 1
When a life-changing injury occurs or a life is tragically lost in an employment context, one cannot help but feel sympathy for the injured worker or his survivors for the consequences of the fateful workplace accident. Many times, as a result of such devastation, the injured employee or his survivors expect to be compensated for their misfortunes in an amount that far exceeds that offered by the employer through traditional workers' compensation benefits. So in a sort of a tribute to the litigiousness of American society, a civil dispute arises over who is to blame and how justice is to be served. When this happens, it is essential that such disagreements be resolved in a forum insulated from the emotions which so easily distort an individual's sense of the proper judicial remedy. Thus, in the realm of litigation, it is the court's job to ensure that the law is properly applied to the facts of the case without undue influence by the compassionate tendencies of human nature.
The Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal's decision of Bujol v. Entergy Services, Incorporated2 involved a workplace accident that claimed the life of one worker and permanently altered the lives of two others when a sudden flash fire occurred at an air separation facility near Plaquemine, Louisiana.3 The injured workers and the survivors of the deceased were eligible candidates for receiving workers' compensation benefits under Louisiana's workers' compensation system, according to which "the employer surrenders the immunity against liability which he would otherwise enjoy in all cases in which he was without fault, and, in return, the employee loses his right to full damages for his injury and accepts instead a Page 442 limited sum by way of compensation."4 But in an attempt to recover damages above and beyond the benefits provided by the state's workers' compensation legislation, the Bujol plaintiffs instituted a third party negligence action against the parent corporation of the subsidiary facility at which the accident occurred. The plaintiffs claimed that the parent corporation had assumed a duty to provide for the safety of the employees at the subsidiary plant, and the alleged breach of that duty was the cause-in-fact of the injuries sustained by the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs' theory of recovery centered on the Good Samaritan doctrine, which stems from the principle established in the Restatement (Second) of Torts 324A (1965).5 The doctrine has existed for centuries,6 and has traditionally been used to impose liability upon an actor who has failed to exercise reasonable care when it undertook to perform a duty owed to a third party.7 But only a few decades ago, the Good Samaritan doctrine began to evolve into a lucrative tool for plaintiffs seeking to impose liability on parent corporations for workplace accidents occurring at their subsidiary facilities. By using the Good Samaritan doctrine in the context of a corporate parent/subsidiary relationship, many plaintiffs have prospered in their attempts to "shift the blame from the party responsible for the harm to the entity with the healthiest balance sheet."8 In addition to enjoying the benefits of evading the exclusive remedy provisions of most state's workers' compensation statutes, employees of subsidiary corporations have also successfully employed the Good Samaritan doctrine "in their individual efforts to establish the liability of a parent corporate shareholder as an alternative to piercing the corporate veil."9 Overall, the Good Page 443 Samaritan doctrine has the potential to provide plaintiffs who are injured on the job with ample opportunity to win the "lawsuit lottery."10
Bujol v. Entergy is by no means a great case, but it is every bit a hard case. The First Circuit was faced with the difficult task of determining whether the plaintiffs had met their burden of demonstrating that the circumstances justified imposing liability on the parent corporation for the workplace accident that occurred at its subsidiary plant. If successful, the court knew that the plaintiffs stood to recover a tremendous compensatory award for the losses they suffered, but, if not, the victims of the devastating accident would be left with only the benefits that they were entitled to receive via worker's compensation. But regardless of whether Bujol is an illustration of a court's judgment being distorted by an "immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings," the court appears to have misapplied the law to the facts, resulting in a windfall for the plaintiffs and the possible introduction of some very "bad law" into our Louisiana jurisprudence.
The negative effects that the Bujol opinion stands to create are particularly troublesome. This note seeks to explain what went wrong in the Bujol decision, and what must be done to address the problems that Bujol will create. Part I introduces the facts that gave rise to the First Circuit's decision. Next, Part II analyzes the basic features of the Good Samaritan doctrine and some of the case law addressing the doctrine's application in the context of a plaintiff's claim for imposing tort liability. The majority of the analysis in Part II focuses on corporate parent/subsidiary relationships. Part III offers a critical analysis of the First Circuit's application of the Good Samaritan doctrine in Bujol. Following up in Part IV, the note takes a brief look at some of the negative implications that acceptance of the Good Samaritan doctrine in Louisiana jurisprudence will likely have on multi-tiered corporations and workers alike. Finally, Part V presents a possible proposal for preventing the damaging consequences that the doctrine's presence in Louisiana jurisprudence has the potential to create.
In the early morning of April 6, 1994, the Air Liquide America Corporation (ALAC) air separation facility located near Plaquemine, Page 444 Louisiana, experienced a significant loss of voltage due to an electrical disturbance that occurred at the Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge. As a result of the loss of electricity, "[m]ajor equipment at the ALAC facility and the Exxon refinery automatically shut down."11Shortly thereafter, three workers, involved in the process of restarting the ALAC facility, were manually closing a large pressure control valve when a "huge fireball" erupted.12 Two of the men suffered severe burns on over 90 percent of their bodies, and the third worker died five days after the explosion. 13
The injured workers and the survivors of the deceased, in the second trial14 arising from the flash fire, brought suit against the insurers of Air Liquide, S.A. (ALSA), the parent corporation of ALAC,15 seeking compensatory and exemplary damages.16 A multinational company headquartered in France, ALSA is involved in manufacturing, storing, handling, and transporting oxygen. The company employs 27,600 people worldwide and has corporate facilities operating in some 60 countries, most of which are located in France, North America, and South America.17 In 1986, ALSA purchased Big Three Industries, adding to the ALSA list of subsidiaries 15 plants in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The purchase included the Plaquemine plant, renamed ALAC, where the accident occurred.
At trial, the jury determined that ALSA had assumed a duty to provide safety services to the employees working at the ALAC plant under the Good Samaritan doctrine.18 The plaintiffs' claim relied heavily upon a technical instruction document produced by ALSA that set the minimum requirements to be met throughout the Air Liquide Group concerning oxygen pipeline networks.19 One of the mandatory requirements set forth in the technical instruction document, which was determined to be applicable to all ALSA subsidiaries, was the need for plants to have protective barrier walls constructed between the gate valve and the handwheel.20 The barrier walls were designed to prevent the very types of injuries suffered by the plaintiffs, but no such walls had been installed at the ALAC plant. The jury concluded that ALSA had breached its duty to provide safety to its subsidiaries' employees by failing to ensure that the mandatory safety requirements, including the construction of barrier walls, were being enforced.21 The jury found ALSA to be 80 percent at fault for the accident, and awarded the plaintiffs over $3,000,000 in compensatory damages and $120,000,000 in exemplary damages.22 The trial court entered judgment in accordance with the jury verdict, and ALSA appealed.
The Good Samaritan doctrine has traditionally been used by plaintiffs to impose liability on various entities for the voluntary, yet negligent, care they sought to provide but somewhere in the process fell...
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