Tort Claim Precluded by Louisiana Workers’ Compensation in Summary Judgment

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently found that a tort claim was precluded by Louisiana Workers’ Compensation. Octavio Diaz-Molina v. Walter C. Flower, III, highlights the need to be clear in settlement documents to identify and stipulate who the proper parties are to prevent other avenues of relief.

Octavio Diaz-Molina v. Walter C. Flower, III – Background

Octavia Diaz-Molina, Plaintiff, was hired by Walter C. Flower, III, Defendant, to perform groundskeeping services on his Covington Property. Mr. Flower set Claimant’s schedule and paid him $400.00 a week. Mr. Flower also owned an investment corporation known as Walter C. Flower & Co. Five months into working on the Covington property, Plaintiff was injured when a pile of debris he was burning burst into flames and burned him.

The Workers’ Comp Claim Against the Corporation and the Individual

Plaintiff initially filed a workers’ compensation claim against Walter C. Flower & Co. seeking medical expenses and past indemnity. Walter C. Flower & Co. denied the claim stating it was not the proper employer. Plaintiff then amended his claim to add Walter C. Flower, III, individually. Plaintiff and Defendant agreed to $8,500.00 for partial settlement of past indemnity benefits owed. Following the settlement, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the workers’ compensation claim against Defendant without prejudice but reserved “all rights for future workers’ compensation benefits against Walter C. Flower, individually.” Claimant also voluntarily dismissed Walter C. Flower & Co. with prejudice asserting that they were not the proper employer.

The Tort Suit Against the Individual

Following the partial settlement, Plaintiff  filed a tort suit against Defendant, individually, arguing that a tort suit was not barred by the workers’ compensation act “because his work as a groundskeeper at Flower’s residential property falls outside the ‘trade, business, or occupation’ requirement.” In response, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Plaintiff’s exclusive remedy lies in workers’ compensation. Plaintiff argued that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding who employed him – Walter C. Flower & Co. or Walter C. Flower, III, individually.

The district court denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding a genuine issue of material fact; however, the Supreme Court found Defendant had established an absence of factual support to an essential element of Plaintiff’s claim and dismissed the tort claim.

Plaintiff used his own deposition to assert that he did not know whether he was working for Defendant in his personal or professional capacity and that he did not know which account his payments were coming from. Defendant submitted the earlier workers’ compensation settlement showing that Plaintiff had stipulated that he “wishes to dismiss Walter C. Flower & Co. with prejudice, as they were not the proper employer.”

Pursuant to Louisiana Civil Code article 1853, the Supreme Court found that this stipulation constituted a judicial confession, otherwise full-proof against Plaintiff’s position of not knowing his employer unless he can show that this stipulation  was made on an error of fact. The Court examined whether Plaintiff had presented any evidence to revoke this judicial confession and found that in his deposition, Plaintiff testified that he did not work at Defendant’s investment business: “All I knew is that I worked for him. He just gave me orders of the work I needed to do.” The Court found this insufficient to revoke the judicial confession or show a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Because the evidence established that Defendant, in his individual capacity, was Plaintiff’s employer, any tort claims were precluded.

The Upshot

This decision highlights the need to be clear in settlement documents to identify the proper parties. Including stipulations in settlement agreements identifying the proper parties, specifically the proper employer, and dismissing all others for not qualifying as the proper employer can preclude secondary claims through other avenues that offer more than compensation of indemnity and medical benefits at the discounted rates of workers’ compensation.

Octavio Diaz-Molina v. Walter C. Flower, III, 2023-CC-01135 (La. 12/19/2023)