That was the sub-head of a recent Houston Chronicle editorial titledReckless Abandon. Here is the editorial, having to do with a Texas Supreme Court ruling earlier this month:
The Texas Supreme Court, in an earlier era, looked kindly on the plaintiff’s lawyers who financed the justices’ election campaigns. These days the court has a well-earned reputation for ruling in favor of the wealthy insurance companies and other corporations that generously underwrite the justices’ re-elections.
If further proof of this propensity were needed, Justice Don Willett provided it in his opinion for the unanimous court in the case of Entergy Gulf States, Inc., v. John Summers. In order to side with big business, the opinion offends not only the law, but also court precedent, legislative intent, reason, custom and common notions of justice.
The facts of the case are uncomplicated. Summers worked for a contractor, International Maintenance Corp., and was injured while performing maintenance at Entergy’s Sabine Station plant. Summers sued Entergy for damages, alleging negligence.
Willett’s opinion, dismissing Summer’s case before trial, says it relies upon the plain meaning of the law, but it does not furnish any of that meaning. Perhaps the omission owes to the likelihood that the law’s wording would not readily support the court’s assertions. The opinion overruled the Ninth Court of Appeals, which had found the plain meaning of the law to mean precisely the opposite of Willett’s conclusion.
Texas law shields contractors and subcontractors who provide their employees with workers’ compensation insurance from further liability for workplace injuries. In its ruling, the court found that a plant owner can call itself a contractor, even if it has no contract with itself to perform any work.
The Ninth Court had ruled, reasonably enough, that Entergy was the owner of the premises and had no contract with itself and thus was not a contractor exempted from liability. Most reasonable people would make the same distinction. When homeowners hire a contractor to perform some task, they don’t regard themselves as building contractors bound contractually to share in the work. In this respect Entergy is no different from a homeowner.
The Texas Legislature in recent years has declined repeatedly to allow plant owners to be simultaneously contractors shielded from liability for workplace injuries. The court’s ruling makes the justices guilty of blatant judicial activism, which many conservatives regard as an unpardonable sin.
Had the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling come earlier, the victims of the BP explosion in Texas City and their families might not have been been able to sue for damages, regardless of BP’s dangerous and careless practices. Henceforth, negligent and unsafe plant owners can call themselves contractors and, by purchasing worker’s comp, shield themselves from liability for workplace injuries no matter how egregious their conduct.
Making the workplace safe for reckless abandon is not the direction Texas should take. The Legislature, at its first opportunity, should make that crystal clear to the high court.