Thomas vs. Chevron USA

Foster Welburn, Director, MMA Insurance Services
January 23, 2017

An employee is fighting one of Mississippi’s largest employers in a dispute over who can be sued when employees suffer on-the-job injuries.

On December 13, 2016 the Mississippi Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a suit by Quindon Thomas against Chevron USA. In 2012 Thomas was an employee of American Plant Services, which provided contract workers at Chevron’s Pascagoula refinery, when he sustained burns as a result of a Chevron employee opening a valve, releasing hot water, steam and coke onto Thomas.

Workers’ Compensation is social legislation which imposes liability without fault, meaning that injured employees receive medical and economic benefits without reference to negligence or fault as to the cause of the injury. Under workers compensation employers pay injured workers and the employees, in turn, can’t sue over their injuries. But this case could allow contract employees to collect workers compensation plus sue the ultimate business owner. Many manufacturers now depend on contract workers in day-to-day operations.

Business groups, which have sought to cut down on lawsuits, and trial lawyers, who have largely lost those fights, are closely watching the case. The Mississippi Economic Council filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief on Chevron’s behalf, while the Mississippi Association of Justice, a trial lawyer’s group, intervened on behalf of Thomas.

Thomas sued Chevron and the California-based petroleum company responded that it should be immune from being sued because it had purchased the workers compensation insurance policy that covered APS workers which paid more than $1 million in care and benefits to Thomas after he was injured.

Jackson County Circuit Judge Robert Krebs agreed with Chevron’s argument and dismissed the case.

However, trail lawyer James Reeves said Thomas should be able to sue Chevron for having dangerous conditions. Reeves argued that state law is well-settled that a general contractor on construction projects gets immunity, but that no property owner gets immunity, even one who hires contract workers to operate part of a facility on an ongoing basis.

“They are attempting clearly to restrict the rights of Mr. Thomas,” Reeves told the court.

Chevron however, argues that the court should construe the law as broadly as possible. Attorney Patrick Buchanan said that because Chevron had a contract with the owner of American Plant Services, it should be considered a general contractor under the law, and qualifies for immunity.

“We’re not asking the court to change the law or overrule precedent that’s already out there,” Buchanan said. “What we are asking the court to do is broadly interpret the law.”