On July 1, 2011, the Supreme Court of Louisiana held that Louisiana waived its sovereign immunity from suit for injury to persons, and that the Louisiana legislature has not limited that waiver concerning suits by state employees under the Jones Act. In Fulmer, the state employee was assigned to the crew of a state-owned vessel in navigation. While patrolling Plaquemines Parish, and traveling at a high rate of speed, the employee was thrown into the air. He allegedly herniated a number of discs and suffered additional spinal injuries when he landed on the deck of the watercraft.
After the employee sued the State, the State argued that it could not be sued because of sovereign immunity. Further, all of the employee’s claims would fall under the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act (“LWCA”), and not tort law. For the sovereign immunity argument, the State cited to the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999), which held that “a state’s sovereign immunity operates to prevent individuals from suing the state for federal remedies in state court absent the state’s consent….” A Jones Act claim is a federal remedy.
The Supreme Court of Louisiana disagreed with the State’s arguments. Louisiana’s Constitution provides, “Neither the state, a state agency nor a political subdivision shall be immune from suit and liability in contract or for injury to any person or property.” This is a clear waiver of sovereign immunity. In response to this provision, the State correctly pointed out that the Constitution also allows the Louisiana legislature to enact laws that may limit the State’s liability exposure. The State argued that the LWCA specifically limited the State’s exposure with respect to injuries suffered by its employees. Again, the court disagreed. The LWCA excludes from state coverage any employee, including a State or public employee, who is covered by the Jones Act. State workers’ compensation is not available to a state-employed seaman. Simply put, the State waived its sovereign immunity for suits for personal injury, and the legislature has not limited the State’s exposure to suit by state-employed seaman under the Jones Act.
Note: This decision should resolve the split that arose between Louisiana’s Third and Fourth Circuits. The Supreme Court agreed with the Fourth Circuit’s analysis. For prior discussions of this issue, check out this blog’s previous posts.