Entergy Gulf States, Inc. v. Summers

Decision Date03 April 2009
Docket NumberNo. 05-0272.,05-0272.
Citation282 S.W.3d 433
PartiesENTERGY GULF STATES, INC., Petitioner, v. John SUMMERS, Respondent.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

Christine S. Kibbe, Paul A. Scheurich, Entergy Services, Inc., Beaumont TX, Jacqueline M. Stroh, Sharon E. Callaway, Crofts & Callaway, P.C., San Antonio TX, for Petitioner.

Steven C. Barkley, Law Office of Steven C. Barkley, Beaumont, TX, Collyn A. Peddie, Williams Kherkher Hart Boundas, LLP, Houston TX, for Respondent.

George S. Christian, Texas Civil Justice League, Jay Harvey, Winckler & Harvey, L.L.P., Austin, TX, Peter M. Kelly, Law Office of Peter M. Kelly, P.C., Houston, TX, Guy D. Choate, Webb, Stokes & Sparks, L.L.P., San Angelo, TX, Zoe Emily Taylor, Texas Trial Lawyers Ass'n., Austin, TX, A. Craig Eiland, A. Craig Eiland Attorney At Law PC, Galveston, TX, Steven Greene Bresnen, Richard Levy, Deats Durst Owen & Levy, PLLC, Austin, TX, James Underwood, Waco, TX, Robert L. Looney, E. Lee Parsley, E. Lee Parsley, P.C., Austin, TX, Christina Stone, Gaughan Stone & Thiagarajan, Houston, TX, Scott P. Stolley, Thompson & knight LLP, Dallas, TX, for Amicus Curiae.

Justice GREEN delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justice WAINWRIGHT and Justice BRISTER joined, and in Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VIII and IX of which Justice HECHT joined, and in Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, and IX of which Justice JOHNSON joined, and in Parts I, II, III, VI, VII, and IX of which Justice WILLETT joined.

Rehearing was granted in this case and our previous opinion was withdrawn. We now substitute the following in its place. The judgment remains unchanged.

In this workers' compensation case, we decide whether a premises owner that contracts for the performance of work on its premises, and provides workers' compensation insurance to the contractor's employees pursuant to that contract, is entitled to the benefit of the exclusive remedy defense generally afforded only to employers by the Texas Workers' Compensation Act. While the Act specifically confers statutory employer status on general contractors who qualify by providing workers' compensation insurance for their subcontractors' employees, it says nothing about whether premises owners who act as their own general contractor are also entitled to employer status, and thus the exclusive remedy defense. We hold that the exclusive remedy defense for qualifying general contractors is, likewise, available to premises owners who meet the Act's definition of "general contractor," and who also provide workers' compensation insurance to lower-tier subcontractors' employees. Because we conclude that Entergy Gulf States, Inc. meets the definition of "general contractor" under the Act, and because Entergy otherwise qualifies under the Act as having provided workers' compensation insurance under its written agreement with International Maintenance Corporation (IMC), it is entitled to the exclusive remedy defense against the negligence claims brought by IMC's employee, John Summers. We reverse the court of appeals' judgment and render judgment for Entergy.

I

Entergy contracted with IMC to assist in the performance of certain maintenance, repair and other technical services at its various facilities. The parties agreed that Entergy would provide, at its own cost, workers' compensation insurance for IMC's employees through an owner provided insurance program, or OPIP, in exchange for IMC's lower contract price. Entergy complied with its obligation under the agreement by purchasing workers' compensation insurance covering IMC's employees. John Summers, an IMC employee, was injured while working at Entergy's Sabine Station plant. He applied for, and received, benefits under the workers' compensation policy purchased by Entergy. He then sued Entergy for negligence. Entergy moved for summary judgment on the ground that it was a statutory employer immune from common-law tort suits. See TEX. LAB.CODE § 408.001(a). The trial court agreed and granted judgment for Entergy. The court of appeals reversed. 282 S.W.3d 511. We granted Entergy's petition for review to examine whether section 406.121(1) of the Workers' Compensation Act excludes a premises owner from serving as its own general contractor for the purpose of qualifying for immunity as a statutory employer of its contractors' employees.

II

The Act outlines a process by which a general contractor qualifies for immunity from common-law tort claims brought by the employees of its subcontractors.1 First, the general contractor and subcontractor must enter into a written agreement under which the general contractor provides workers' compensation insurance coverage to the subcontractor and the employees of the subcontractor. Id. § 406.123(a).2 This agreement makes the general contractor a statutory employer of the subcontractor's employees for purposes of the workers' compensation laws. Id. § 406.123(e).3 The statutory employer is entitled to immunity from common-law tort actions brought by the subcontractor's employees, and a covered employee's "exclusive remedy" for work-related injuries is workers' compensation benefits. Id. § 408.001(a).4

Summers first argues that Entergy failed to establish as a matter of law that Entergy and Summers executed a written agreement under which Entergy would provide workers' compensation coverage. See TEX. LAB.CODE § 406.123(a). Summers' chief argument is that the contract for maintenance, construction, and general services was between IMC and another Entergy company, Entergy Services, Inc., as opposed to Entergy Gulf States, Inc. However, the contract stated that Entergy Services, Inc. acted for itself and as agent for other Entergy Companies, defined to include the Entergy petitioner here. Summers also admitted in his response to Entergy's summary judgment motion that the contract was between IMC and Entergy Gulf States. In addition, the blanket contract order states that Entergy would be paying "O.P.I.P. wage rates," indicating that the contract's purpose included insurance coverage. Entergy also offered an affidavit from a risk manager, stating that pursuant to the contract between Entergy and IMC, Entergy agreed to procure a workers' compensation policy for IMC employees. As a matter of law, these documents establish that Entergy satisfied the written agreement requirement under the statute. Under this agreement, the workers' compensation coverage for IMC's employees was secured by Entergy, not IMC. Likewise, it is undisputed that Summers sought and collected benefits for his injury from Entergy's OPIP. Thus, in determining Entergy's qualification as a statutory employer entitled to the exclusive remedy defense, the only remaining inquiry is whether Entergy falls within the Act's definition of "general contractor." TEX. LAB. CODE § 406.121(1). We conclude that it does.

III

The meaning of a statute is a legal question, which we review de novo to ascertain and give effect to the Legislature's intent. F.F.P. Operating Partners., L.P. v. Duenez, 237 S.W.3d 680, 683 (Tex. 2007). Where text is clear, text is determinative of that intent. State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 284 (Tex.2006) ("[W]hen possible, we discern [legislative intent] from the plain meaning of the words chosen."); see also Alex Sheshunoff Mgmt. Servs., L.P. v. Johnson, 209 S.W.3d 644, 651-52 (Tex.2006). This general rule applies unless enforcing the plain language of the statute as written would produce absurd results. Fleming Foods of Tex., Inc. v. Rylander, 6 S.W.3d 278, 284 (Tex.1999). Therefore, our practice when construing a statute is to recognize that "the words [the Legislature] chooses should be the surest guide to legislative intent." Fitzgerald v. Advanced Spine Fixation Sys., Inc., 996 S.W.2d 864, 866 (Tex.1999). Only when those words are ambiguous do we "resort to rules of construction or extrinsic aids." In re Estate of Nash, 220 S.W.3d 914, 917 (Tex.2007).

With these principles in mind, we examine what the Legislature meant by the term "general contractor" in the workers' compensation statute. We do not look to the ordinary, or commonly understood, meaning of the term because the Legislature has supplied its own definition, which we are bound to follow. TEX. GOV'T CODE § 311.011(b). The Legislature defines "general contractor" as:

[A] person who undertakes to procure the performance of work or a service, either separately or through the use of subcontractors. The term includes a "principal contractor," "original contractor," "prime contractor," or other analogous term. The term does not include a motor carrier that provides a transportation service through the use of an owner operator.

TEX. LAB.CODE § 406.121(1). That a premises owner can be a "person" within the meaning of the statute is not challenged. The dispute, instead, centers on whether one who "undertakes to procure the performance of work" can include a premises owner, or whether that phrase limits the definition of general contractor to non-owner contractors downstream from the owner.

Since the words contained within the definition are not themselves defined, we apply a meaning that is consistent with the common understanding of those terms. According to Black's Law Dictionary, "undertake" generally means to "take on an obligation or task," and "procurement" means "the act of getting or obtaining something." BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 981, 1238 (7th ed.2000). In other words, a general contractor is a person who takes on the task of obtaining the performance of work. That definition does not exclude premises owners; indeed, it describes precisely what Entergy did. In the words of Summers' own summary judgment response, Entergy "entered into a contract with [IMC] for IMC to perform various maintenance work at Entergy's plant in Bridge City, Texas." Therefore, we conclude that a premises owner can be a general contractor under the definition provided...

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