Jorge-Chavelas v. La. Farm Bureau Cas. Ins. Co., CIVIL ACTION 3:15–CV–00657–JWD–EWD

CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Louisiana
Writing for the CourtJUDGE JOHN W. deGRAVELLES
Citation307 F.Supp.3d 535
Parties Alejandro JORGE–CHAVELAS and Alfredo Moreno–Abarca, Plaintiffs v. LOUISIANA FARM BUREAU CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, et al., Defendants
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION 3:15–CV–00657–JWD–EWD
Decision Date09 March 2018

307 F.Supp.3d 535

Alejandro JORGE–CHAVELAS and Alfredo Moreno–Abarca, Plaintiffs
v.
LOUISIANA FARM BUREAU CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, et al., Defendants

CIVIL ACTION 3:15–CV–00657–JWD–EWD

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana.

Signed March 9, 2018


307 F.Supp.3d 540

Alexander Theodore Reinboth, Zachary Stevens Walker, Rhorer Law Firm, Daniel Brian Davis, Randall Eugene Estes, Samuel Bradley Rhorer, Baton Rouge, LA, for Plaintiffs.

Robert Heath Savant, Plauche Maselli Parkerson LLP, Stacey A. Moak, Breann Crane, Christopher W. Stidham, Jonathan Dale Mayeux, Stacey Moak & Associates, Baton Rouge, LA, Andrew L. Plauche, Jr., Elizabeth Babin Carville, Plauche Marselli & Parkerson LLP, New Orleans, LA, for Defendants.

RULING AND ORDER

JUDGE JOHN W. deGRAVELLES

Introduction

This is a personal injury case involving serious injuries suffered by plaintiffs Alejandro Jorge–Chavelas ("Jorge–Chavelas") and Alfredo Moreno–Abarca ("Moreno–Abarca") (collectively "Plaintiffs"). Plaintiffs sued Harang Sugars, LLC ("Harang Sugars"); Lee Harang ("Harang"), the majority owner of Harang Sugars; Calvin Smith ("Smith"), an employee of Harang Sugars; and Harang Sugars' liability insurers Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company and Louisiana Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company (collectively "Farm Bureau"). This Court has jurisdiction because Plaintiffs are Mexican nationals, all defendants are citizens of Louisiana, and the amount in controversy

307 F.Supp.3d 541

exceeds $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs.1

The underlying facts giving rise to Plaintiffs' injuries are not in dispute. On August 14, 2015, during a sugarcane planting operation, Harang Sugars' employee Smith negligently drove a tractor into the rear of a cane cart on which Plaintiffs were riding. Plaintiffs, payroll employees of Lowry Farms, Inc. ("Lowry Farms"), were injured.2

The primary issue before the Court is Plaintiffs' status. If Plaintiffs are employees or independent contractors involved in manual labor for Harang Sugars, as Farm Bureau contends, Plaintiffs' exclusive remedy against Harang Sugars is workers' compensation, and they have no tort remedy against any of the Defendants. Furthermore, there would be no coverage under the two Farm Bureau policies. If, on the other hand, Plaintiffs are employees of Lowry Farms, and not employees of Harang Sugars or independent contractors doing manual labor for Harang Sugars, as Plaintiffs and Harang Sugars maintain, then Plaintiffs have a viable tort remedy against Defendants, and Farm Bureaus' policies would provide coverage for the accident.

For the reasons which follow, the Court finds that Plaintiffs were, at the time of the accident, employees of Lowry Farms only and not employees (outright, borrowed, dual or joint) of Harang Sugars and were not, within the meaning of Louisiana law, independent contractors doing manual labor for Harang Sugars. The Court finds the two Farm Bureau policies provide coverage for the accident. Given the stipulation regarding Smith's fault and the amount of damages suffered,3 judgment is rendered in favor of Plaintiffs in the amount stipulated among the parties.

The Players

Plaintiffs Jorge–Chavelas and Moreno–Abarca are Mexican nationals who were at all relevant times temporarily and legally residing in Louisiana as "H–2A workers" under the authority of 8 U.S.C. § 1101, et seq. and the regulations promulgated pursuant thereto, 20 C.F.R. 655.100, et seq.4

Defendant Harang Sugars is a Louisiana limited liability company whose members are natural persons and citizens of Louisiana. Defendant Harang is a citizen of Louisiana and is the majority owner of Harang Sugars.5 Defendant Smith is also a citizen of Louisiana who was an employee of Harang Sugars and was driving the tractor that struck and injured Plaintiffs.6

Defendant Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company is a Louisiana insurance company which issued Farm Liability Policy No. GF111187 to Harang Sugars.7 Defendant Louisiana Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company is a Louisiana insurance company which issued Umbrella Policy No. UM807963 to Harang Sugars.8

307 F.Supp.3d 542

Non-party Lowry Farms is an Arkansas–based company which contracted with Harang Sugars to "provide 21 workers from July 15, 2015 to October 20, 2015 to plant sugar on [Harang Sugars'] farm."9 Intervenor, American Interstate Insurance Company ("American Interstate"), is the workers' compensation insurer for Lowry Farms.10 Non-party, Louisiana Workers' Compensation Commission ("LWCC"), issued a policy of workers' compensation insurance to Harang Sugars, which was in full force and effect at the time of the subject accident.11

Procedural History

Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit on October 5, 2015, alleging that on August 14, 2015 they were working as employees of Lowry Farms when Harang Sugars' employee Smith drove a tractor into the back of a cane cart on which Plaintiffs were sitting, seriously injuring both Plaintiffs.12 Plaintiffs named as defendants (1) Smith; (2) Smith's employer, Harang Sugars, and; (3) Harang Sugar's liability insurers, Farm Bureau.13

On November 17, 2015, the Plaintiffs filed their First Amended Complaint,14 adding alternative claims against Harang, the principal of Harang Sugars, in his personal capacity, and Harang Sugars. There, Plaintiffs alleged that, in the event it was found that Plaintiffs were employees of Harang Sugars, then Defendants were liable to Plaintiffs for breach of contract, violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and violation of the Louisiana Wage Payment Law ( La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 23:631, et seq. ). Plaintiffs later dismissed these alternative claims.15

American Interstate, the workers' compensation insurer for Lowry Farms, filed a Petition for Intervention on January 12, 2016 against all parties to the suit alleging subrogation rights for amounts paid to or on behalf of Plaintiffs under its worker's compensation policy.16

Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Farm Bureaus' Borrowed Employee Defenses17 which was supported by Defendants Harang Sugars, Harang and Smith.18 Only Farm Bureau opposed the motion.19 Farm Bureau filed

307 F.Supp.3d 543

its own Motion for Summary Judgment on Claims of Plaintiffs and Intervenor20 which was opposed by Plaintiffs21 as well as Defendants Harang Sugars, Harang and Smith22 and Intervenor American Interstate.23 Oral argument was heard on both motions on February 9, 201724 and both motions were denied on March 27, 2017.25

On April 27, 2017 the parties entered into an extensive stipulation in open court.26 They agreed that Harang Sugars was solely at fault for Plaintiffs' bodily injuries and that the bodily injuries to Plaintiffs collectively equaled $2.5 million (the amount of the applicable limits of the two Farm Bureau policies). Plaintiffs would look only to Louisiana Farm Bureau for the payment of judgment, if any. Plaintiffs stipulated that in the event the Court determined judgment should be entered in their favor, the judgment should award $1,937,500 to Alejandro Jorge–Chavelas and $562,500 to Alfredo Moreno–Abarca. All other claims for damages, including the FLSA claims, would be dismissed. They agreed the case would be tried solely on the issue of Harang Sugars' immunity and/or the applicability of Farm Bureau's employment-related coverage exclusions and unless Farm Bureau prevailed on the foregoing immunity/coverage defenses, Farm Bureau would pay the full amount of the stipulated damages plus interest and costs as allowed by law. The parties agreed the case would be tried as a bench trial, without live testimony but instead on stipulations, depositions, and exhibits admitted into evidence.27

The bench trial was held on July 10, 201728 following which the Court requested for additional briefs, asking the parties to respond to each other's Proposed Finding of Fact and Conclusions of Law. These were filed on July 25, 201729 and the matter was submitted.

Factual Background—Harang Sugars and Sugarcane Planting

Harang Sugars is a family-run farming corporation in Donaldsonville, La. which owns and leases farmlands to plant, grow, harvest and sell sugar cane. It farms nearly 5000 acres of sugar cane, regularly harvesting approximately 4000 acres of sugar cane which is delivered to a sugar mill each year.30 Harang is the majority owner and the person in charge of the day-to-day operations of Harang Sugars.

307 F.Supp.3d 544

Farming sugar cane is a year-round enterprise which involves multiple different phases that are important to a successful crop.31 The planting phase is an important part of Harang Sugars' business because once it is completed, it must live with the results of the planting for the four or five year cycle involved in growing sugar cane.32 The sugar cane planting season...

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4 practice notes
  • Trinity Med. Servs., L.L.C. v. Merge Healthcare Solutions, Inc., CIVIL ACTION NO. 17-592-JWD-EWD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Middle District of Louisiana
    • August 7, 2018
    ...that in the context of Louisiana law, the Court must follow the civilian method. Jorge-Chevales v. La. Farm Bureau Cas. Ins. Co., 307 F. Supp. 3d 535, 549 (M.D. La. 2018). Pursuant to civilian methodologies, jurisprudence is considered a secondary source of law, and the federal court is not......
  • Evans v. Aptim Corp., CIVIL ACTION NO. 18-984-JWD-EWD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Middle District of Louisiana
    • July 1, 2019
    ...make an "Erie guess" by deciding how the Louisiana Supreme Court would rule. Jorge-Chavelas v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Cas. Ins. Co. , 307 F. Supp. 3d 535, 549 (M.D. La. 2018), aff'd , 917 F.3d 847 (5th Cir. 2019).Applying the substantive law of Louisiana is different from other states becaus......
  • Nelson v. Americas Ins. Co., CIVIL ACTION NO. 17-850-JWD-RLB
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Middle District of Louisiana
    • November 1, 2019
    ...make an "Erie guess" by deciding how the Louisiana Supreme Court would rule. Jorge-Chavelas v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Cas. Ins. Co., 307 F. Supp. 3d 535, 549 (M.D. La. 2018), aff'd, 917 F.3d 847 (5th Cir. 2019). Applying the substantive law of Louisiana is different from other states because......
  • Meadors v. D'Agostino, CIVIL ACTION NO.: 18-01007-BAJ-EWD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Middle District of Louisiana
    • March 30, 2020
    ...guess by predicting how the Louisiana Supreme Court would rule. Jorge-Chavelas v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company, 307 F.Supp.3d 535,549 (M.D. La. 2018). In making an Erie guess, the Court is required to rely on the following: (1) decisions of the Louisiana Supreme Court in......
4 cases
  • Trinity Med. Servs., L.L.C. v. Merge Healthcare Solutions, Inc., CIVIL ACTION NO. 17-592-JWD-EWD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Middle District of Louisiana
    • August 7, 2018
    ...that in the context of Louisiana law, the Court must follow the civilian method. Jorge-Chevales v. La. Farm Bureau Cas. Ins. Co., 307 F. Supp. 3d 535, 549 (M.D. La. 2018). Pursuant to civilian methodologies, jurisprudence is considered a secondary source of law, and the federal court is not......
  • Evans v. Aptim Corp., CIVIL ACTION NO. 18-984-JWD-EWD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Middle District of Louisiana
    • July 1, 2019
    ...make an "Erie guess" by deciding how the Louisiana Supreme Court would rule. Jorge-Chavelas v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Cas. Ins. Co. , 307 F. Supp. 3d 535, 549 (M.D. La. 2018), aff'd , 917 F.3d 847 (5th Cir. 2019).Applying the substantive law of Louisiana is different from other states becaus......
  • Nelson v. Americas Ins. Co., CIVIL ACTION NO. 17-850-JWD-RLB
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Middle District of Louisiana
    • November 1, 2019
    ...make an "Erie guess" by deciding how the Louisiana Supreme Court would rule. Jorge-Chavelas v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Cas. Ins. Co., 307 F. Supp. 3d 535, 549 (M.D. La. 2018), aff'd, 917 F.3d 847 (5th Cir. 2019). Applying the substantive law of Louisiana is different from other states because......
  • Meadors v. D'Agostino, CIVIL ACTION NO.: 18-01007-BAJ-EWD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Middle District of Louisiana
    • March 30, 2020
    ...guess by predicting how the Louisiana Supreme Court would rule. Jorge-Chavelas v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company, 307 F.Supp.3d 535,549 (M.D. La. 2018). In making an Erie guess, the Court is required to rely on the following: (1) decisions of the Louisiana Supreme Court in......

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